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FOUND: Jerry Lewis’ Very Strange And Long-Hidden Holocaust Film

A shot from a film documenting the making of The Day the Clown Cried (Photo: Screenshot from making of footage)

The Day the Clown Cried, a 1972 Holocaust movie starring comedian Jerry Lewis, was never lost, exactly. Lewis has had a copy for years—and he’s kept it under lock and key. For years, movie buffs have been obsessed with seeing the film, which only a handful of people have ever viewed. And, recently, they have discovered that it’s now in the Library of Congress—and that it might one day be opened up to some type of public screening.

Made in 1972, mostly in Sweden, the film tells the story of Helmut Doork, a washed-up clown who’s sent to an internment camp for mocking Hitler. He begins to perform for Jewish children also locked up in the camp, and, by the end of the movie, has been accidentally shipped off with them to Auschwitz, where his role is to comfort them on their way to death in the gas chambers. Here’s how Lewis, who also directed the film, describes that final scene: 

“I had the cameras turn and I began to walk, with the children clinging to to me, singing, into the gas ovens. And the door closed behind us.”

By the time the film had been completed, it had run into financial and legal troubles. The producer had basically skipped town; the production did not own the rights to the story. That’s at least part of the reason the film was never released. But it was also just…too much.

People who had seen part of it described it to Spy Magazine as “almost unwatchable”…”beyond normal computation”… “so awful–you can’t even laugh at it.”

Some critics, though, are more sympathetic. “Even in the early seventies, when Lewis worked on the film, his attempt to confront the practical details of daily life in an extermination camp was, at the very least, unusual and original,” New Yorker film critic Richard Brody wrote in 2013

Either way, it sounds profoundly weird. Now that the Library of Congress has the film, though, more people may eventually be able to judge for themselves: the Library of Congress “just acquired” the collection of which the film is part, the Los Angeles Times reported, and “agreed to not show the film for at least 10 years.” But not never.  

Lewis, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem to think the movie is bad. His critics, he said in 2009, are ”putting it down because I won’t let them see it! That’s all. They have no idea what they’re talking about.” But he’s also said: ”I was ashamed of the work…It was bad, bad, bad. It could have been wonderful. But I slipped up. I didn’t quite get it.”

Bonus finds: Gliding possumflesh-eating prawncannabis residue in pipes found in Shakespeare’s garden

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.