Paramount // 2003 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // August 16th, 2005
Yet another reason why Nazis suck.
This is the Academy Award–nominated PBS documentary about Kurt Gerron, a famed Jewish director in Germany, and his experience under the Third Reich -- and the desperate, shameful deal he made to stay alive.
In the 1930s Kurt Gerron was living the high life in Berlin. An accomplished actor who would later go on to be a prominent filmmaker, Gerron was one of Germany's cultural elite. He lived the high life, partying, spending his notable wealth, enjoying lakeside gatherings with friends and families. And then the National Socialists came into power. Soon Jews were blackballed from society, their livelihoods stripped from them, their social standing obliterated. Gerron quickly went from top-tier national celebrity to out-of-work director.
Worse was yet to come. Failing to appreciate the gravity of the impending dark days, Gerron on multiple occasions missed an opportunity to flee Europe, as so many of his friends and fellow artisans (like Fritz Lang) had the foresight to do. Eventually, of course, Nazism swept Germany up in its sinister ideals, and the Jews became the object of menace. The Final Solution was enacted. Humans were slaughtered by the trainload.
But Gerron and other notable and talented Jews initially avoided the death camps as the Nazis stored them in the ghetto Theresienstadt. Here, the Nazis showed international organizations like the Red Cross that there was nothing shady going on -- despite the poverty and backroom torture and death that would happen when no one from the outside was looking in.
As the specter of the Holocaust crept into Theresienstadt and Jews began to disappear, carted to their death in Auschwitz, Gerron was faced with a heart-rending choice: to potentially save himself by doing the unthinkable. He would step behind the camera for his final film, a Nazi propaganda piece trumpeting Theresienstadt to the world as a utopian paradise, not the threshold to Hell that it actually was.
Prisoner of Paradise is a remarkable documentary and should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in a compelling and heartbreaking story of how a human spirit can be crushed. The selling point of the documentary is the fact that Gerron made this propaganda film. In a chilling opening, sequences from this documentary are shown, depicting a village paradise with smiling children -- and then narrator Ian Holm breaks in with "It was all a lie." An incredibly effective opening, but in reality this plot point is relatively small in the greater scheme of the documentary.
Gerron's film is not the centerpiece of the Prisoner of Paradise; Gerron himself is. This film isn't about the making of the propaganda but of the deterioration of a human being. It is about the extraordinary evil of the Third Reich, and its ability to take a happy, successful man -- Gerron -- and turn him into a person who chose to betray his people for a chance to live. And the disturbing thing is, it's a choice we would probably all make if we were in the same position.
Prisoner of Paradise spends much of the first hour setting up who Gerron was. This is essential. He was a giant of a man in the Berlin entertainment sphere, flush with power and prestige. The evaporation of everything he achieves, who he actually was, is brutal. The majority of the documentary focuses on life in Theresienstadt, which really was a pit stop to the Final Solution for many of the elite European Jews. Many of the residents of this ghetto had gone from being members of the upper crust to paupers (having been forced to release all of their capital to the Reich in exchange for living in Theresienstadt) and second-class citizens, and then, ultimately, to cattle. And when Gerron is finally faced with the decision that will so deeply trouble his co-inhabitants, to film this outright lie, it is the final step in his degradation.
All this means that Prisoner of Paradise isn't a feel-good movie. But it's supremely powerful and important. The narrative is brought to life through dramatizations, stock footage, location shoots, and interviews of survivors. Highly recommended.
This is a solid-looking DVD. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great. The footage -- even the old movie clips -- is pristine. For audio, the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix is as reserved as it should be. A nice setup overall.
The biggest blight on this disc is the lack of bonus features, a DVD element Paramount appears to be resistant to for its PBS releases. A real bummer.
I can't shake those haunting scenes from the propaganda film. Defeated people, all of them. Shattering stuff. Prisoner of Paradise is one of the finest documentaries I've seen.
Not guilty. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* PBS Online