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PBS Home Video presents

Prisoner of Paradise (2003)

"As a director, I can direct a scene, but I cannot erase the horror from people's eyes." - Kurt Gerron, concentration camp inmate, on making a film on behalf of his captors

Stars: Kurt Gerron
Other Stars: Ian Holm
Director: Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:35m:41s
Release Date: 2005-04-12
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B- D-


DVD Review

The magnitude of the numbers of people killed by the Nazis in concentration camps remains, on a moral level especially, impossible to comprehend. And even a consideration of the staggering amount of victims can be numbing: we can only take in so much human horror before recoiling from the brutality of the facts. So in cinematic terms, the most effective techniques have proved to be not talking about the masses, but allowing a single figure or two to stand in for the millions; we know, and the filmmakers know, that to appreciate the full scope of the Holocaust, one must add many, many zeroes to the several portrayed in the most poignant films dealing with the period. And so to the story of Oskar Schindler and Wladyslaw Szpilman we can add that of Kurt Gerron, told here not in a dramatic re-creation, but a documentary. The film may always stay a little on the outside of its central figure, but it is full of disturbing, shocking tales from the nadir of the last century.

Kurt Gerron may be most familiar to American audiences today as one of the principal supporting players in The Blue Angel; a star of the Berlin cabaret scene of the 1920s and 1930s, Gerron is also especially notable as having been in the original cast of The Threepenny Opera, and having been the first to sing Mack the Knife, which became his signature song. A veteran of the First World War, Gerron came back from the front intending to pursue a career in medicine, but was bit by the stage bug instead. He soon became a cabaret headliner, and took on many film roles in the early days of German talkies. (In 1927 alone, he appeared in 27 films.) A stout, frequently comic figure, Gerron wasn't dashing enough to play leading man roles, but he was hungry for control, and soon started to direct, both on stage and for film. His was one of the celebrated careers in Germany between the wars.

Tragically for him, however, he was as politically oblivious as he was professionally ambitious. Gerron was Jewish, and the apex of his fame came just as Hitler came to power; Gerron soon found himself barred from the German film business by the Nazis, and sought exile first in Paris, then in Amsterdam. He was convinced that the Nazis wouldn't last, that soon enough he'd be able to return to his flourishing career in Berlin; to call this an error in judgment is a brutal understatement, and Gerron failed to flee to America, as did so many of his friends and colleagues, including Billy Wilder, Peter Lorre, Marlene Dietrich, and Josef von Sternberg. (Gerron even helped to raise the money to get Lorre to Hollywood.) The Third Reich rolled into Amsterdam while Gerron was living there, and again the actor was under the control of the Germans.

What followed would be unthinkably macabre and grisly if it weren't the truth. Gerron was high profile enough not to be sent to a concentration camp, but rather was relocated to Theresienstadt, a "model" ghetto for "Jews who would be missed"—that is, those the Nazis couldn't simply slaughter without raising the ire of the international community. The ghetto's Nazi commandant fancied himself a connoisseur of theater, and created an in-house repertory company of imprisoned Jews—the officers seemed to think it was a merry old time, but the prisoners were, literally, performing for their lives. Theresienstadt was awful, but it wasn't Auschwitz; the prisoners there lived in fear of the dreaded word "transport," which meant certain death in the gas chambers.

With astonishing hubris, the Nazis dressed up Theresienstadt for a visit from the International Red Cross, rightly suspicious of the treatment of Jews in Germany; the ruse worked, and the Red Cross representative completely bought the charade that this was a Jewish paradise. And this success emboldened the Reich still further: they decided to make a film about Theresienstadt, parading it to the world as a paragon of freedom and industriousness. Their choice to direct was Gerron, thus making him a Jew making a film for the Nazis, a prisoner creating a work of art celebrating the virtues of his prison. The moral dimension wasn't difficult at the time: all of Gerron's fellow prisoners agreed that he should do whatever is necessary to survive. But still, to be a participant in the Nazi propaganda machine had to be a hateful business for Gerron, even though he hungered once again to be behind the camera.

The filmmakers interview some of the survivors of Theresienstadt, and they have unearthed a good amount of archival footage of Gerron and the camp, which is unsettling and extraordinary. There are a couple of missteps, though, including dramatic re-creations of life in the camps, and occasional awkward parallels drawn between Gerron and Hitler. Also, though I wouldn't encourage the filmmakers to engage in speculative psychobiography, we never quite come to understand Gerron; granted, all those who knew him best are long gone, but especially his decision not to emigrate to America could have benefited from some greater context or teasing out, a broader understanding of the man. But those issues don't obscure the overall effect of this documentary; its sense of despair and of the opportunities so awfully snuffed out by the Third Reich make watching it a memorable and worthy experience.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Solid transfer, nicely blending archival material with newer interview footage. I still don't like the dramatic re-creations, though. (Also: the DVD case indicates that the film includes footage not seen in the PBS broadcast, but what that footage is precisely is not made clear.)

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: There are some sync sound problems in the second half of the film, which detracts from its otherwise clean audio transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Only chapter stops. A serious disappointment, given the opportunities presented—even just an audio recording of Gerron doing his signature song would have been welcome. (Take that, Bobby Darin.)

Extras Grade: D-

Final Comments

A documentary like Shoah is working on a grander canvas than this one, but in many respects Prisoner of Paradise tells an even more horrific tale, full of impossibly savage ironies and of squandered opportunities and talent, all due to the evils of the Third Reich.

Jon Danziger 2005-04-12