Prisoner of Paradise

Its very clumsiness, particularly in the writing, is so very transparent, and its subject so vast (he was evidently a genius), that in spite of the critics’ alarming ability to ignore what’s on the screen, Prisoner of Paradise succeeds in being a faithful account of Kurt Gerron and his extraordinary career.

For the blighters of the press, I will recount some of the facts. You remember him as the fat magician in The Blue Angel who pulled an egg out of Emil Jannings’ nose. He studied medicine, was decorated in the First World War, went on the stage at twenty-three, into movies that same year. Cabaret was his specialty, he was the first to sing “Mack the Knife” in The Threepenny Opera. He was a film star and then a director until the Nazi edict came down. He went to Paris, then Amsterdam. From Westerbork he was sent to Theresienstadt, and there he was ordered to direct Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt, after which he died in Auschwitz.

“Paris was naughty” in the Twenties, we are told, “Berlin was decadent.” This solecism is recouped an hour or so later when swing music is similarly branded, only this time by the Nazis. In a similar vein, it is also said that Gerron became a director to gratify his ego. It’s a Canadian-British co-production, and the British film industry is rather moribund.

Nevertheless, footage and recordings show you what a wonderful performer Gerron is, and doubtless (though it’s not saying much) he could have directed this better. The tragedy of Kurt Gerron is that he was an artist who didn’t escape the net, and not at all that he directed Hitler’s propaganda film at the point of a gun. A film is a film, he knew, and twenty-three minutes of people’s happiness in 1944 was not too little for the sweat he poured over it, “he was a broken man” says an eyewitness. Here, in footage from the film, you see them represented almost as if life was going on as it ought. You see them, after all, is what I think Gerron had in mind.

“He had a child’s mind,” which has been said of Mozart. He satirized the Nazis in the Twenties, and was made to pay for it in the Thirties. There you have satire as a weapon. Pictures of children playing are pictures of children playing.

What is not explained, really, is why precisely such a film should have been ordered by Hitler. We are told that he wished to create a good impression on Switzerland and Sweden, and that it was never shown there. I doubt it could have imposed upon anyone’s credulity, or was meant to.

Kurt Gerron could act and sing, and was a successful director. His moral dilemma at Theresienstadt was that of the kapos, which was to live or die. I can’t be sorry for a picture of the condemned as it were untrammeled as they ought, it stands alongside other footage of the time as a sheer work of art for which Gerron is ultimately responsible.

He forces his way through the flimsy structure of Prisoner of Paradise in anecdotes and descriptions by his contemporaries, in scenes from his films, in snippets of songs. Another half-hour would have been welcome, more than that. “Vaguely repellent,” says the solidly repulsive New York Post reviewer. Brilliant, convivial, fatherly, industrious (“shamelessly prolific,” says the Boston Globe), fluently comical (“boisterous,” again says the Boston Globe), generous, proud (“hubris,” screams the New York Times), witty, and quite humble when it came to finally asking Hollywood in earnest for a way out, which was denied.

Why he stayed after helping Peter Lorre out is unexplained here, except by conjecture. The truth is that a top film star was hounded to the shores of Europe and then forced to direct a concentration camp film, after which he was executed. Hardest of all is TV Guide’s reviewer, who concludes that Gerron’s actions were “traitorous,” which I should probably do if I wrote for TV Guide.