The travelogue is a little over 20 minutes long, and depicts a German community that looks idyllic. Theresienstadt, based on what we see, is a near-Utopian community for artists, gardeners, athletes, and children. Imagine the most active college campus you've ever seen, amid picturesque rural surroundings. Sure, everyone in the film looks suspiciously thin, but that's most likely just a result of diet and exercise, isn't it?
Consider, then, the short film's international title: The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Intended to be exported for the rest of the world to examine, Theresienstadt was supposed to be "proof" that Jews were actually living happy and fulfilling lives under the Nazi regime. In actuality, the community being lovingly represented was a holding area from which the only way out led to Auschwitz.
Prisoner of Paradise, a 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary finally making its way into theaters, begins with footage from the propaganda film, made in 1944 but never released as the Nazis intended because by that point they were a wee bit busy, what with losing the war and all. The rest of Paradise focuses on the director of the Theresienstadt film, renowned actor-turned-auteur Kurt Gerron, a husky fellow best known to American audiences for acting opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Gerron was a Jew, and this final directorial assignment was his best chance left to survive.
Holocaust movies can be iffy propositions -- there are so many that it's easy to foresee a day when the combined running times of all of them put together may last as long as the actual events depicted. Any regularly working film critic knows the drill -- there are only so many times one needs to hear an explanation of the concentration camp slogan Arbeit Macht Frei, for example. Yet every once in a while, someone will come up with a new angle, and Prisoner of Paradise definitely has that. It isn't beyond the realm of the pale to imagine ordinary people going along with the Nazi regime under the premise of "just following orders," but the elaborate fiction of Theresienstadt is so creative in its evil that merely exposing it gives the viewer a new perspective on just how deliberately malevolent Hitler, Himmler, and company truly were. It can be hard to conceptualize mass murder, but using the media to lie is a concept we're all quite familiar with in this day and age, and it gives us a gateway toward visceral understanding of the scope of the whole thing.
However, the Holocaust isn't the entire story here. It hangs like a shadow over everything, but this is really more a Kurt Gerron biopic, from his days onstage in the role of Mack the Knife to copious clips from his acting career to his long-awaited stint as a director. Unfortunately, he was rather naive about the path history would take, at least in hindsight -- more than once he turned down the opportunity to move to Hollywood and rejoin his friends Peter Lorre and Josef von Sternberg. Seeing Nazism as just a passing fad -- one that he had mocked on film 10 years before it really caught on -- he ignored the threat to himself until it was too late.
Guiding us through the mix of archival footage, film clips, talking heads (mostly surviving Germans who were children when they knew Kurt), and re-creations (clearly labeled as such) is Ian Holm, who proves to be a wise choice. Narration can make or break a documentary -- Michael Moore's films would likely not be as popular without Moore's comic commentary, for example, and the recent NASCAR documentary for IMAX suffered slightly by utilizing the overserious tones of Kiefer Sutherland. Thankfully, unlike some other narrators of past Holocaust documentaries, Holm instinctively gets that the material is powerful enough on its own, so he doesn't have to sound relentlessly tragic. He just has to take us through the story, and he does so in a conversational style that feels inviting to the viewer.
Director Malcolm Clarke has already won two previous Academy Awards for the feature Soldiers in Hiding and the short You Don't Have to Die, and his co-director on this project, Stuart Sender, is a veteran of documentary TV, so between them, it's no surprise they hold our attention. Prisoner of Paradise should be compelling to film historians as well as general history buffs, and Gerron appears to have been quite a character. That the filmmakers only briefly go into the moral-dilemma aspect of his infamous final film (i.e., would it have been more honorable to resist and die rather than make sinister propaganda? Clarke and Sender don't seem to think so, and leave it at that) may be considered a weakness, but perhaps they're saving that as a stronger theme for the dramatic feature about Gerron that's on their slate of upcoming projects. The subject matter's now a proven winner, so let's hope they get the funding for it.
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