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:: Prisoner Of Paradise

A little half-way into the viewing of “Prisoner of Paradise”, I realised that this documentary was made as a homage to German-Jewish actor, director and cabaret star, Kurt Gerron, on his short life as an artist during the Nazi era.

I should have known from the detailed and rather lengthy exposition on Gerron’s beginnings in Berlin in the 1920s and ‘30s. As one can expect in historical documentaries, lots of talking heads, archival footage, and stills of Gerron’s films and his family were used, though a shorter exposition would have sufficed.

A big man in girth and height, Gerron was surprisingly naive in his dealings with people and in his perception to events unfolding under Hitler’s leadership. Even when he had opportunities to escape to the United States like many of his contemporaries - Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich - Gerron remained in Europe, believing that Nazi rule would shortly come to pass. It is this abject misjudgment that would force Gerron to leave his beloved Berlin into exile in Europe, when it became impossible to find regular movie work as a Jew in Germany. Eventually in 1942, Gerron’s world came to an end when the Nazis despatched him to Theresienstadt, Austria, an ‘artistic community’ of prominent Jewish artists, musicians and intellectuals which the Nazis had ‘relocated’ across Europe.

This is where the documentary really takes off. When Hitler needed a distinguished director to make a propaganda film on the Theresienstadt Jews, he chose Gerron. The film was to deceive European governments concerned over the mass disappearance of Jewish artists. For his part, Gerron relished the chance to work again, for acting and directing was the very blood of his life yet Gerron was torn between his art and Nazi propaganda. He found it difficult to get his fellow inmates to participate in the film. Eventually, he succeeded and nowhere is irony in life depicted more cruelly or absurdly than in Theresienstadt. The inmates perform with such passion and abandon in spite of the monstrosity that would befall them.

Surviving participants of the film have questioned the role that Gerron played: Collaborator or a man who wanted to prolong his life and extend the lives of the camp inmates who participated in the film? At the same time, we, the audience, are asked what we would have done in Gerron’s shoes.

The documentary succeeds in outraging our intrinsic sense of moral dignity not so much from the abominable cruelty of the Nazi regime but from the sheer perversity of Nazi ideology and its organised enterprise.

That said, Prisoner of Paradise should be remembered more for the life of Kurt Gerron – a character that was larger than life, known for his warmth and generosity to friends, his talent as an artist and what he gave to his art.

Screening at the Lumiere Cinemas