PRISONER OF PARADISE
Kurt Gerron was a successful German-Jewish actor, director and cabaret star in the Berlin of the 1920s, co-starring with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and singing Mack The Knife in the original production of Threepenny Opera. He worked in any medium, from cabaret to film. He was a big man and a big star. Inevitably, when the Nazis came to power, Gerron was
rounded up with thousands of others and sent to Theresienstadt, a town near Prague that was turned into a concentration camp. His creative urge and the captive talent around him led him to produce shows – everything from children’s opera to concerts, poetry, painting … When the Nazis launched a propaganda campaign to counter rumours about conditions in camps, they ordered Gerron to make a documentary of Theresienstadt as the model camp, where artists had freedom to create, the inmates sat at cafes to listen and generally life was being lived on easy street.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Documentaries about the Nazis and the Holocaust never lose their drawing power - but we've heard the old, terrible tale so many times that often the horror no longer registers. More than almost any other film I've seen, The Prisoner of Paradise managed to overcome my boredom with a wellworn subject, forcing me to confront these atrocities as if for the first time. How? Through melodrama. Through the most basic technique of storytelling, the juxtaposition of opposed realities. Through a story that would
seem outrageously crude and manipulative if concocted by a Hollywood screenwriter.
Whether or not we're familiar with Gerron's face and biography, he emerges for us immediately as a stock fictional type: the successful cabaret artist, a showman to his fingertips, rotund and worldly with a cigar perpetually in his mouth. It seems almost too neat that Gerron's satirical film portraits of shysters and skinflints would be reinterpreted by the Nazis as anti-semitic caricatures (used in their infamous propaganda film The Eternal Jew).
But this is nothing compared to the final act, which tops any of the tearjerking twists in Roberto Benigni's widely trashed Life Is Beautiful: Gerron, the entertainer who lives to please, is given the chance to practice his art one final time, hoping to do his best even in the service of evil. For better or worse, certain moments in this film moved me to uncontrollable tears: the description of a "magnificent cabaret" the night before departure for Theresienstadt, or the obscenely jaunty rhythms of a Jewish swing band ordered to play during a Red Cross inspection. Such pathos would be cheap in any other context, but then what could appear more contrived and improbable than the unbelievable truth? So the irony cuts both ways. Gerring's story becomes a parable about the artist's relation to evil, and this same problem is central to how we judge The Prisoner Of Paradise itself. Perhaps art (which includes melodrama, frivolity and lies) is no more than a grotesque disguise for the horror of reality.
Or perhaps art is the truth we make for ourselves, as if the only path to grace were through playing our assigned roles as well as possible: could this be implied by the unforgettable account of Gerron walking with silent dignity to his death, an actor giving his final, crowning performance?
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This is the sort of doco that Malcolm Clarke does exceptionally well. You may recall he made The Life and Death of Steve Biko – entirely in secret – in South Africa, about the celebrated murder of the political activist. In Kurt Gerron, Clarke has another riveting subject; a Jew in a concentration camp ordered to make a propaganda film about his prison so as to make it look like a holiday camp. Clarke approaches the subject without hysterics and lets the story reveal itself as he tells it, picture by grainy archival picture, and a well written narration, which is given a masterful and unsentimental reading by Ian Holm.
The first part of the film establishes Kurt Gerron as a professional and as a man in his milieu, in the 20s. Where Paris is naughty, Berlin is decadent. The second half is devoted to the rise of Nazism and the dilemma Gerron faced when ordered to make a documentary full of lies. This is a perennial subject for French filmmakers who are still trying to assuage the guilt of collaboration. Some films have tackled similar subjects from a German perspective, where German artists faced the same dilemma: to play or not to play (eg Taking Sides). But it’s rare for a Jew to be caught in such a fork, and the documentary canvasses these issues as well as the facts.
Some of Gerron’s peers abandoned him for what he did; a devastating and unkind indictment, but understandably, feelings ran high on the matter. Yet when we see some of the footage today, it is so ridiculous a concept we can’t help feeing that perhaps inadvertently, Gerron made the Nazis look like fools, on two counts. First, it suggests that concentration camps were really just relaxed and entertaining holiday villages, where Jews were able to peacefully escape the horrors of war. Why weren’t many Germans masquerading as Jews to get in? The notion defies common sense. And second, the film shows up the crude naivety of a regime that thought such a piece of propaganda would be accepted unquestioned. As it happened, the film was never used – a piece of irony that would make Gerron weep. Not because his work went unseen, but because it made him unclean among his peers, for nothing.
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PRISONER OF PARADISE (G)
CAST: Documentary narrated by Ian Holm
PRODUCER: Malcolm Clarke, Karl-Eberhard Schaefer
DIRECTOR: Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender
SCRIPT: Malcolm Clarke
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Hammon
EDITOR: Glenn Berman, Susan Shanks
MUSIC: Luc St Pierre
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Imagine Entertainment
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney: October 23, 2003. Melbourne: October 30, 2003