`Prisoner' raises curtain on Nazi camp

MovieReview

May 07, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

***1/2

Prisoner of Paradise tells a Holocaust story that emphasizes both the incalculable inhumanity of the Nazi atrocities and the absurd, almost petty motivations that often seemed to be at work. It also raises some disturbing questions about morality and the lengths one should be willing to go to save oneself.

It's the story of Karl Gerron, a famous actor and director in pre-war Germany whose notoriety and talent weren't enough to save him from life in a concentration camp. Directors Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender use interviews with camp survivors who knew Gerron, footage from his films and new shots of the places he lived (including the concentration camps) to establish a mood of somber inevitability, of chances missed and talent wasted. Gerron's fate comes to symbolize the fate of so many Jews, whose talents were not enough to counterbalance their heritage.

Gerron's story comes with a twist: The camp where he ended up was Theresienstadt, a sort-of showplace ghetto filled with the smartest and most talented - the so-called "useful Jews." In 1944, under pressure from such neutral European countries as Switzerland and Sweden to explain why so many European Jews seemed to be disappearing, the Nazis gussied-up Theresienstadt and invited the International Red Cross to see for itself how well the Jews were being treated. Prisoner, nominated for a documentary Oscar for 2002, includes an interview with the young aide worker, now an old man, who was so completely duped by their efforts. His comments, and the look on his face while making them, are heartbreaking.

So successful were the Germans in hiding the truth that they decided to go even further and make a movie they could show proudly throughout the world. That's where Gerron comes in. Asked by the camp commandant to direct the film, he anguished over his decision. But eventually he agreed - partly at the urging of the camp council, a group of fellow prisoners who persuaded him, according to one interview subject, to do whatever it took to survive.

The result was The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews, a film that made Theresienstadt look like as nice a community as one would want. Some of his fellow prisoners hated him for making such a deal with the devil, while others understood the exigency of Gerron's situation (and defend him to this day).

So grateful were the camp commanders that, within weeks, Gerron was on a train to Auschwitz and his death.

Gerron's story proves as fascinating as it is tragic; the documentary traces his career from the mid-'20s, when he started appearing in cabarets and as an actor in films (including The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich). The portrait it paints is of a man defined by his work, a man who, with the Nazis on their way to power, resisted repeated entreaties to escape to Hollywood. His decision to remain in Europe was a tragic one, his fate cruelly ironic.

Prisoner of Paradise

Directed by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender

Unrated (Images of the Holocaust)

Released by Alliance Atlantis

Time 96 minutes

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