The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ mysterious Holocaust film project, has been largely kept under wraps since production completed in 1972. According to Lewis, the reason it was never released is because the film is “bad, bad, bad.”
For years, Lewis has said that no one will ever see The Day the Clown Cried. However, last August, it was reported that Lewis had donated reels of all his films to the Library of Congress with the caveat that the Holocaust film could not be shown until 2025. In January, the BBC released a documentary about Lewis’ take on the Holocaust, which he referred to as “embarrassing.” Now, however, about 30 minutes of the film, cribbed together from leaks and documentaries, have surfaced online.
The plot unfurls as follows: Lewis plays a German clown named Helmut Doork who’s fallen from grace and is taken to a Nazi camp for political prisoners. There, he begins to entertain Jewish children through a barbed wire fence, for which he’s repeatedly punished. Finally, the Nazis assign him to be a sort of comedy sonderkommando, keeping the children placated and eventually calming them down on a train headed for Auschwitz. In a climactic scene, Lewis leads the children to a gas chamber, Pied Piper-style, where he decides to die with them. (It’s almost Korczakian in its altruism, until you remember that the film is horribly contrived and, according to Harry Shearer, done with an Academy Award in mind.)
There should rightly be an assumption of weightiness when a director chooses to take on a topic of such depth and complexity as the Holocaust. However, when a movie dealing with the topic fails—as The Day the Clown Cried appears to do—said failure should be examined.
Take Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. The first half of the film is largely lighthearted slapstick in prewar Italy, with Benigni playing a Jewish man who can remedy even the most dire situation with gaiety and wit. In the second half, Benigni and his young son are deported to a concentration camp, where Benigni, intent on shielding his son from the horrors of the camp as best he can, invents a game in which his son can earn rewards for completing objectives like avoiding Nazi guards. Mel Brooks called it “the worst movie ever made.” The Academy rewarded Benigni with statues for Best Picture and Best Actor.
In gauging the different judgments of Life is Beautiful, interesting questions arise about the ways in which audiences deal with Holocaust: Is the unrelenting bluntness of Schindler’s List the only way to go when it comes to depicting the Holocaust? As Benigni learned, many were not quite ready for his method. (While his take was certainly interesting and unique, there was something undeniably off-putting about watching him prance around barracks with his fictional son.)
So there’s something singularly disquieting about seeing Jerry Lewis imitating a walrus for imprisoned children one second and then receiving a savage beating from jackbooted Nazis the next. No doubt, the whole thing seems heavy-handed and in unimaginably poor taste, but one gets the sense that the full piece might actually have a little something to it. Son of Saul and a few other films have covered the role of the sonderkommando, perhaps the darkest thread to picked from the wide tapestry of Holocaust stories, but many of them have been produced in the last 15 or 20 years, when public tastes have begun to allow for greater breadth when it comes to dealing with historical brutality in any arena (see: 12 Years A Slave). It may be that, fail as it might have, The Day the Clown Cried was just too far ahead of its time. If that’s the case, mark your calendars for August 2025.