Train of Life

(Radu Mihaileanu, France/Belgium/Holland, 1998)


The combination of comedy and the Holocaust is still, for some viewers, a troubling mix. One explanation as to why storytellers would want to put them together is offered within the annals of Jewish humour. Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) provides a little lesson on the ethos of this humour, when a camp inmate tells a tale: "I woke up from a dream this morning. I was broke and sharing a room with twelve people I didn't know. Only to discover that I was broke and sharing a room with twelve people I didn't know!"


The principle is clear: laugh to keep from crying. Comedy, here, serves as a defense against what, in the real world, is unbearably miserable and tragic. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) elaborated this principle: beyond the momentary relief offered by a joke or two, full-blown escape into a fantasy world (such as Benigni offered the little boy in the camp) serves as an even better defense against harsh conditions.


That is, until the moment when such fantasy crumbles and reality reasserts itself, more ghastly than ever. It is fascinating to observe this see-saw between flights of imagination and the brutal shock of history in fictions that tackle the Holocaust. Radu Mihaileanu's Train of Life is an ingenious and touching variation on this theme.


It is a very high-spirited and overtly comic film. Its setting is not the camps but a village in Eastern Europe. Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski), the much-loved local fool, brings word that the Nazis are coming – and that, as in neighbouring villages, they are all to be deported. Shlomo bears not only bad news but a brilliant solution: they should build a train, disguise it is as a Nazi transport, and all flee to safer territory.


The terrors of history seem far away as these villagers bicker, fall in love and bumble around trying to organise their departure. At times – particularly whenever the camera caresses the naked form of young Esther (Agathe De La Fontaine ), ripe for love – Train of Life feels like a very old-fashioned comedy indeed.


Finally, the train gets moving, and an element of political satire (reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, 1942) kicks in. Some of the villagers who are pretending to be prisoners start taking their victimisation seriously, and embrace communism. Those who are masquerading as Nazis become power-mad and tyrannical.


The biggest laughs come when the inhabitants of this train meet real Nazis at the stations along the way. Rufus (the tall, thin comedian from Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000 [1976]) is splendid as Mordechai, the masquerading official who can scarcely manage to give a Nazi salute convincingly.


The more this story proceeds, the more fantastic and unbelievable it becomes. And as the comedy becomes more rambunctious, it veers towards tastelessness. But these are precisely the doubts that Mihaileanu is counting on in his audience, because they sharpen the ethical question of humour in relation to the Holocaust, and prepare a path for the surprise ending.


Train of Life is a modest but colourful and thought-provoking work, well served by a score by Goran Bregovic, composer for many of Emir Kusturica's films.


MORE Holocaust fiction: The Truce

© Adrian Martin October 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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