Prisoner of Paradise

Robin Clifford 
Prisoner of Paradise
Laura Clifford 

The life of Kurt Gerron, the legendary German-Jewish stage and film star of the1920’s and 30’s, is not well known in America. Academy Award winning documentarian Malcolm Clarke and co-director Stuart Sender remedy this lack with their insightful look at the man, once at the top of his field, who lost everything to the Nazis and eventually sunk to the level of directing a film of their propaganda in order to survive the Holocaust in “Prisoner of Paradise.”

The docu follows Kurt Gerron’s remarkable career as a Cabaret and theater star during the lively bustle of Berlin in the 20’s. This city full of music and nightlife is the fertile ground that spawned the artist professional as he rose to the top of his craft in acting and directing. As Gerron’s prominence increased so did that of another man of grand ambition – Adolph Hitler. The Jewish Laws handed down by the new German chancellor where Jews are decried by law to be second-class citizen, losing rights and possessions. Gerron, as a result, was ordered off the set of his latest film by Nazi officials and was forced to flee to Paris, leaving all that he owned to the fascists.

Gerron, penniless, searched in vain for theater and film work in France. He ignores the cautionary advice about the Nazis from his colleagues, such as Joseph von Sternberg, Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre, whom Gerron raised funds to send to America. The great actor and filmmaker was forced to move to Amsterdam where he achieved a modicum of his old success – until the Nazis invade Poland, then the rest of Europe, including Holland. Suddenly, the dreaded Laws apply to all of occupied Europe and Gerron is relegated, by his masters, to perform at Amsterdam’s Jewish Theater.

Then, in 1942 Hitler’s henchmen met at a lakeside conference in Wannsee, Germany and, in 90 minutes, decide the ultimate fate for Europe’s Jews - the Final Solution. During the third act of Gerron’s latest play, a bemedalled Nazi officer appears, taking inventory of the theater. The next day, when Gerron and company arrive for rehearsal, their theater is in shambles and the officer announces that it is the new Transportation Center for Jews. The actor/director and his colleagues are eventually shipped to the concentration camp at Theresienstatd in Czechoslovakia.

The camp became the way station to death for the wealthy, celebrity, intellectual and artistic members of Europe’s Jewry, those whose disappearance would be most noticed by the rest of the world. The presence of the famous inmates of Theresienstatd leads the Nazis to cook up a sham to convince those outside of the Reich of their good intentions toward the Jews. When the International Red Cross, reacting to the demands by neutral countries, requests inspection of a concentration camp, the Nazis are happy to comply. They dress up the façade of the old city turned prison, planting flowers, dressing up the inmates and showing all is happy and prosperous, leading the Red Cross representative through a carefully choreographed tour of the Theresienstatd camp. The ruse works.

So successful is the lie that the camp wardens hold a contest for a screenplay to show how wonderful life is in the Theresienstatd, with the finished film distributed to the neutral nations. The first attempt at the documentary, by the young woman who wrote the treatment, is terrible, an indictment of the Nazis. She is executed. The camp commandant selects Kurt Gerron to make the documentary, demanding that it show the wonderful treatment of Jews under Nazi “care.” He takes on the task of creating a whitewashed depiction of the happy, healthy inmates eating bread and butter and playing music and dancing. But, the filmmaker’s desperate effort, in his mind a betrayal of his people, to survive come to naught and, on 28 October 1944, Gerron and his wife were executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Clarke and Sender chose a unique subject in Kurt Gerron for their Oscar-nominated work. They collect a bevy of still shots of the actor and director, clips from films such as “Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, and many interviews with Gerron’s contemporaries, colleagues and surviving family. Although Gerron’s own insights to the times are not documented, the viewpoints of others helps build a look at a man of talent, compassion and kindness. They discuss his humane help, often monetary, to others to escape the Nazi oppression while he repeatedly fails to heed the same warnings – to fatal ends.

The documakers gathered previously unseen footage of the period and weave together the story of Gerron’s life and times, his success and Nazi-imposed failure and, ultimately, his death. When he is chosen to direct the mock documentary of the life of the Jews under the Nazis, Gerron sought the advice of the camps Jewish council of elders who recommended that he “do whatever it takes to survive.” Even with this support from his own people, Gerron still agonized over his possible betrayal of his fellows. The finished film never saw the light of day outside of Nazi Germany.

“”Prisoner of Pleasure” is a different look at the victims of the Holocaust through the story of a talented, popular actor and director who died at the hands of his Nazi captors because of the sole fact that he was a Jew. I give it a B.

Beloved German-Jewish film star and director Kurt Gerron, who costarred with Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel," was so focused on his career that he seemed blind to the encroaching Nazi threat.  While he organized a financial pass of the hat among expatriate filmmakers in Amsterdam to get an ailing Peter Lorre to Hollywood, Gerron boxed himself into a corner until he became the ironic "Prisoner of Paradise."

Paradise being the concentration camp Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where the Nazis herded Jewish celebrities and artists.  This was the camp that was used to present the model of the ideal treatment of the Jews to the outside world.  The Red Cross visited (with a tightly controlled and choreographed agenda) and gave their stamp of approval.  Goerring decided to make another propaganda film and held a contest among the inmates.  The first attempt unwittingly allowed too much of the actual conditions to be shown, outraging the Nazis, so Gerron was tapped. The beloved Berlin entertainer became hated by many of his peers when he transformed the camp into 'heaven on earth' for his camera.  Even more ironically, Goerring had used footage of Gerron to present his idea of the archetypical Jew in his early propaganda films like "The Eternal Jew.'

"Prisoner of Paradise" filled last year's Oscar's nominated documentary feature slot for the Holocaust subject, but this is certainly a unique look at that much-covered horror of history.  Ian Holm narrates and directors Malcom Clarke (who also wrote) and Stuart Sender begin their film with a fake out, having Holm describe a Utopian community of artists.  This turns out to be Theresienstadt, as publicized by the Germans.  The filmmakers then trace Gerron's career in cabaret and film with film clips and audio recordings - Gerron's friend Bertholt Brecht provided him with his signature song, "Mack the Knife."  Gerron's influence, particularly in Berlin, is underlined with the fact that he made 27 films in 1927 alone.  In one inspired look back, an old suit of Gerron's is displayed amidst candelabras and studio lights on the Marlene Dietrich stage at Babelsberg Film Studios as we hear him sing, giving the song a ghostly effect.  Another eerie effect is achieved by superimposing footage of transport trains over film of Gerron doing a magic trick, making things disappear.

A former neighbor, who knew him as a star-struck little girl, describes him as a jolly man with a big cigar who shared his life of luxury with friends and family, yet he watched many of them, including colleagues Josef von Sternberg, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, leave Berlin while he persisted in his European career.  Involved in directing a film in Amsterdam, Gerron rejected a Hollywood job when he learned he and his family's passage would not be first class!  He even choose to perform at the Dutch seaside resort of Scheveningen for two years during which he could have escaped.  Only when it was impossible to ignore the situation did Gerron panic, writing pitiable letters to the likes of Fritz Lang, which, sadly, were ignored.

On February 26, 1944, Kurt Gerron arrived in Theresienstadt, where a survivor describes his shock at seeing the once immense movie star starving.  Clarke and Sender paint Gerron as a Norma Desmond-ish character, dressing the part of director while suffering the abusive words of the Nazis he was filming for.  The collaboration issue is sliced three ways with one survivor describing their hatred for what Gerron was doing while another puts forth the 'what would anyone do in his place' argument.  A third perspective, that his film was never shown to its intended audiences, is offered as a historical acquittal.

The film suffers slightly, frustrating by offering too much speculation on Gerron's thoughts during the time  and too little factual evidence of them. Still, "Prisoner of Paradise" leaves its audience with a sense of sadness and loss for this childlike man who offered so much to so many before his horrific end which was ironic on so many levels.


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