Prisoner of Paradise

(Malcolm Clarke & Stuart Sender, USA/Canada/Germany/UK, 2002)


Kurt Gerron, a noted German-Jewish actor, singer and director of the 1920s and 30s, was not especially blessed with a political consciousness. He enjoyed his fame and he specialised in light-hearted, showbiz entertainment.

But history caught up with Gerron when he ended up in a concentration camp. And there, in order to survive, he had to direct a propaganda film for the Nazis, whitewashing the miserable, daily reality of the camp.

Directors Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender have found a remarkable subject in Gerron, and they tell his story in a way that does not fail to be emotionally powerful. Present-day interviews with Gerron's professional colleagues and several Holocaust survivors help bring the past alive in all its moral complexity and ambiguity.

But a big problem for any documentary maker is an absence of footage. In the case of Gerron, there is a wealth of clips relating to his film career, but almost nothing that documents his time in the camp.

This leads Clarke and Sender to many questionable editing decisions. There is a great deal of sleight of hand, whereby historical incidents are illustrated in an approximate way by either documentary footage or moments from fiction films – almost none of which are identified.

Sometimes this can be semi-justified as playful cleverness – if we hear that Gerron's famous friend Peter Lorre in real-life received a crucial phone call, we see him picking up the receiver in some movie. Far more dubious is the use of any old clip of a Jewish theatre troupe every time the cultural life of the camp figures in Gerron's story.

Prisoner of Paradise reminds us of the gulf between two vastly different schools of documentary filmmaking. On the one hand, there is television documentary, where footage from all over is gathered, mulched and streamlined into an absolutely clear narrative, no matter what atrocities are committed in terms of historical accuracy.

On the other hand, a more rigorous school of filmmaking, associated with figures like Harun Farocki and Chris Marker, goes to the other extreme in presenting key audio-visual traces in their integrity, precisely as archival documents to be closely studied.

I wish Clarke and Sender had taken enough of a leaf from this hard-line school to want to show us more of Gerron's sanitised film of the camp, and not just a few abstracted, tantalising grabs in slow-motion.

MORE Holocaust documentary: Into the Arms of Strangers, The Last Days

© Adrian Martin October 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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