doc talk

In these documentaries, some see grim images, others see humor

A worker in a Chinese coal mine from Zhao Liang’s “Behemoth.”
Grasshopper Film
A worker in a Chinese coal mine from Zhao Liang’s “Behemoth.”

Images of environmental destruction possess their own grim sublimity.

In Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang’s documentary “Behemoth” (2015), a vast, open-pit coal mine gouges the pastoral landscape of the Mongolian steppes, its ringed tiers gouged by insect-like land-moving machinery. As is noted in the film’s voice-over narration, the scene evokes the circles of hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” Other arresting, ironically metaphorical shots arouse an aesthetic response, such as a 50-foot wall of grey slag encroaching on a patch of greenery being grazed by a herd of goats.

Though the scarring of the landscape can make for poetic imagery, the toll the mining and steel industries take on the local population working in them is grimly realistic. Zhao relates the fate of some of the workers from their high-tech but sometimes shockingly primitive toil to their mean quarters where they try to wash the grime from their bodies and enjoy unappealing meals.


He follows them to hospitals where inky fluid is sucked from their lungs, and to the cemetery where they finish their usefulness to the devouring beast of the title. The final shots of empty gleaming apartment blocks in a planned workers’ paradise add an element of uncanny surreality.

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Those who point to China as our rival in the use of coal and the production of steel might watch this film to better understand the price paid in human and environmental terms.

“Behemoth” screens Monday at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre as part of the DocYard series. The director will offer comments via Skype after the screening.

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Holocaust humor?

Adorno famously claimed that writing poetry was barbaric after Auschwitz, but he didn’t say anything about comedy. Ferne Pearlstein looks into this delicate matter of taste and propriety in her documentary “The Last Laugh,” which finds her asking comedians, scholars, activists, and survivors what they think of jokes about the Holocaust.

Mel Brooks, who didn’t shy from lampooning Nazis in his classic comedy “The Producers” (1967), refuses to joke about their crimes. Sarah Silverman and the late Joan Rivers feel that one way to strike back at such monsters is to ridicule them. Others offer opinions about whether the kind of comic sentimentality seen in Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” (1997) is salutary or offensive.


In addition to these interviews, Pearlstein includes rare archival footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps as well as recently found footage from Jerry Lewis’s unreleased, disowned, and apparently horrendously misconceived comedy “The Day the Clown Cried.”

In exploring this topic, the film touches on the nature and purpose of humor, whether it is possible or helpful to counter evil with a punch line. As Rob Reiner points out, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.”

“The Last Laugh” premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on Independent Lens, PBS. It will be available for online streaming on Tuesday.

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Peter Keough can be reached at