"Prisoner of Paradise" is a strange story wrapped in a stranger one, an engrossing documentary about one of the least known and most unexpected aspects of the Nazi war against the Jews.
The strange story is how a pitilessly fraudulent 1944 German propaganda film called "The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews" came to be made about a place called Theresienstadt. The stranger story is how a man named Kurt Gerron, a major star in prewar Germany as well as a Jew, came to make it.
In a saner world, Kurt Gerron would not be remembered for having directed that unfortunate film. He would be known for costarring with Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough performance in "The Blue Angel," or for originating the role of Tiger Brown and being the first to sing "Mack the Knife" in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera."
Instead Gerron's part in making "The Fuehrer" tends to overshadow everything else. The dreadful choices he was forced to make raise uncomfortable questions about the interaction of art and savage totalitarianism, about the morality of doing whatever it takes to survive.
"Prisoner of Paradise," which was nominated for a 2002 Oscar, opens with clips from that 1944 film, the brunt of which was that Theresienstadt was one swell place. Narrator Ian Holm reads what sounds like a version of the film's original voice-over, describing "a great utopian experiment . . . a self-sustaining community of like-minded people . . . the most culturally active small town in Europe."
That, however, was what the "Prisoner" script by Malcolm Clarke (who co-directed with Stuart Sender) calls "a grotesque and shameful lie." That town in Czechoslovakia was hardly a utopia but rather a concentration camp where all of the residents were eventually sent to death camps farther east, and the attempt to portray it as anything else was "a cynical Nazi hoax."
The bulk of the film shows us who Gerron was and how he came to "convincingly tell such a colossal lie." Its in-depth investigation of a telling incident in history involved considerable research, including the tracking down of people who personally knew Gerron both in and out of the camps.
While some of its aesthetic choices, including dramatic re-creations and the use of over-emphatic narration of the "the noose was tightening fast" variety, are not all they might be, the story being told is compelling enough to overcome them.
Though his name is little known today, in the prewar years Gerron was one of Germany's most popular actors and directors. Initially a stage performer celebrated for his distinctive singing style, Gerron was admired enough as an actor (he once appeared in 27 films in a single year) and had enough of an ego to make the transition to directing inevitable.
When the Nazi ban on Jews in entertainment took effect, the apolitical Gerron was devastated, his career in ruins. He became a gypsy, performing across Europe but to nothing like his former success. With numerous friends in Hollywood, including Peter Lorre, the director Fritz Lang and the agent Paul Kohner, he flirted with coming here but frustratingly dithered and dawdled until flight became impossible.
Gerron's undoing was finally that, as a costar remembers, "he could never get enough theater, he loved it, he was obsessed with it." Work was all he knew, what he had to have, even if it meant appearing in blatantly anti-Semitic films like "The Eternal Jew."
When the International Red Cross decided to send a fact-finding mission to Theresienstadt, the Nazis embarked on a grand deception, constructing a poisoned Potemkin village that disguised the camp's true intent. It was so successful that the Nazis decided to duplicate it on film, and determined that Gerron, already incarcerated, was the best person for the job.
In its examination of why Gerron ended up agreeing to direct "The Fuehrer," "Prisoner of Paradise" not only tells a gripping story but touches on several provocative areas. It provides more concrete answers than we usually get to broad questions about where turning a blind eye to history can lead you and, more pointed still, it shows us what making a deal with the devil looks like in the most mundane, day-to-day terms.
'Prisoner of Paradise'
MPAA rating: No MPAA rating
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
A Media Verite and Cafe Productions production, released by Menemsha Films. Directors Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender. Producers Malcolm Clarke, Karl-Eberhard Schaefer. Executive producers Jake Eberts, Stuart Sender. Screenplay Malcolm Clarke. Cinematographer Michael Hammon. Editors Glenn Berman, Susan Shanks. Music Luc St. Pierre. Narrator Ian Holm. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
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