Lewis plays a washed-up German circus clown named Helmut Doork during the beginning of World War II and the Holocaust. Although he was once a famous performer who toured America and Europe with the Ringling Brothers, Doork is now past his prime and receives little respect. After Doork causes an accident during a show, the head clown convinces the circus owner to demote Doork. Upon returning home, Doork confides his problems in his wife Ada, and she encourages him to stand up for himself. Helmut overhears the circus owner agreeing to fire him after the head clown issues an ultimatum. Helmut is distraught. He is arrested later by the Gestapo for ranting about Germany and drunkenly mocking Adolf Hitler in a bar. Following an interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters, he is imprisoned in a Nazi camp for political prisoners. For the next three to four years, he remains there while hoping for a trial and a chance to plead his case.
He tries to maintain his status among the other inmates by bragging about what a famous performer he once was. His only friend in prison is a good-hearted German named Johann Keltner, whose reason for being interred is never fully revealed but is implied to be his outspoken opposition to the Nazis. The camp receives a large group of Jewish prisoners, including several children. The other prisoners goad Doork into performing for them, but he does not realize he actually is not very good. The other prisoners beat him up and leave him in the courtyard to sulk about his predicament. He sees a group of Jewish children laughing at him from the other side of the camp, where the Jewish prisoners are being kept away from everyone else. Delighted to be appreciated again, Helmut performs for them and gains an audience for a while, until the new prisoncommandant orders that he stop.
Helmut learns that fraternizing with Jewish prisoners is strictly forbidden. Unable to leave the children in a state of unhappiness, he continues to perform for them. The SSguards break up one of his performances; they knock him unconscious and warn the children away from the barbed-wire fence. Horrified, Keltner fights off one of the guards, but he is quickly cornered and beaten to death. Doork is placed in solitary confinement. Seeing a use for him, the commandant assigns him to help load Jewish children on trains leading out of the internment camp, with the promise his case will be reviewed. By a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally accompanying the children on a boxcar train to Auschwitz, and he is eventually used, in Pied Piper fashion, to help lead the Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chamber.Knowing the fear the children will feel, he begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them. Leading them to the "showers", he becomes increasingly dependent on a miracle, but there is none. He is so filled with remorse that he remains with them. As the children laugh at his antics, the movie ends.
In 1971, while performing at the Olympia Theatre, Lewis met with producer Nathan Wachsberger, who offered him the chance to star in and direct the film with complete financial backing from his production company and Europa Studios. Before he had been given the offer, several stars such as Bobby Darin, Milton Berle and Dick Van Dyke were also approached, but declined. Lewis was initially reluctant to take the role, especially after reading the script, stating in his autobiography Jerry Lewis in Person, "The thought of playing Helmut still scared the hell out of me". In addition, he felt that he was wrong for the part, due to the strong subject matter. He asked Wachsberger:
Why don't you try to get Sir Laurence Olivier? I mean, he doesn't find it too difficult to choke to death playing Hamlet. My bag is comedy, Mr. Wachsberger, and you're asking me if I'm prepared to deliver helpless kids into a gas chamber? Ho-ho. Some laugh — how do I pull it off?—Jerry Lewis
After re-reading Joan O'Brien and Charles Denton's first draft, Lewis felt that he would be doing something worthwhile in portraying the horrors of the Holocaust. He signed on to the project, but, in order to make it, he first had to arrange to perform at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for a month, in order to fulfill the terms of his contract with the hotel. In February 1972, he toured the remains of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps and shot some exterior shots of buildings in Paris for the film, all the while reworking the script. He lost thirty-five pounds in six weeks by eating nothing but grapefruit.
Principal photography on the film began in Sweden during April 1972, but the shoot was beset by numerous problems. In an article published online on October 30, 2010 at mondo-video.com, cast members working on the film with Lewis reported his on-set personality as "distracted, nervous and preoccupied with money". Film equipment was either lost or delivered late, and the necessary money was nowhere in sight. Lewis was repeatedly assured that money was forthcoming by Wachsberger, who did not appear at all on set.Wachsberger not only ran out of money before completing the film, but his option to produce the film expired before filming began. He had paid O'Brien the initial $5,000 fee, but failed to send her the additional $50,000 due her prior to production. Lewis eventually ended up paying production costs with his own money to finish shooting the film, but the parties involved in its production were never able to come to terms that would allow the film to be released. After shooting wrapped, Lewis announced to the press that Wachsberger had failed to make good on his financial obligations or even commit to producing. Wachsberger retaliated by threatening to file a lawsuit of breach of contract and stated that he had enough to finish and release the film without Lewis. Wanting to ensure the film would not be lost, Lewis took a rough cut of the film, while the studio retained the entire film negative. In January 1973, Lewis stated publicly that the film was in final production, it had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it would be released in America after that.
Although never seen publicly, the film became a source of legend almost immediately after its production. In May 1992, an article in Spy magazine quotes comedian and actorHarry Shearer, who saw a rough cut of the film in 1979:
With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. "Oh My God!" — that's all you can say.—Harry Shearer, Spy Magazine, 1992
Shearer also goes on to point out why Lewis would make the film: he believed "the Academy can't ignore this". When asked to sum up the experience of the film overall, he responded by saying that the closest he could come was like "if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You'd just think 'My God, wait a minute!' It's not funny, and it's not good, and somebody's trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling."
The article quoted Joan O'Brien as saying the rough cut she saw was a "disaster"; it also says she and the original script's other writer, Charles Denton, will never allow the film to be released, in part due to changes in the script made by Lewis which made the clown more sympathetic and Emmett Kelly-like. In the original script, the protagonist was an arrogant, self-centered clown named Karl Schmidt, who was "a real bastard", according to O'Brien. Her script reportedly had him trying to use his wife, who knew the ringmaster, to get him a better gig, and he apparently informed on nearly everyone he knew after being interrogated for mocking Hitler. She stated that the original draft was about the redemption of a selfish man, but that Lewis practically changed the entire story into a Chaplinesque dark comedy à la The Great Dictator.
Lewis offered the opinion that it was all bad, an artistic failure because "I lost the magic". Quoted in Entertainment Weekly: "You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work."On the other hand, a more upbeat assessment is offered by the Jerry Lewis official museum website: "The film has been tied up in litigation ever since, and all of the parties involved have never been able to reach an agreeable settlement. Jerry hopes to someday complete the film, which remains to this day, a significant expression of cinematic art, suspended in the abyss of international litigation".