Kurt Gerron was a tall, heavyset Jewish German World War I hero who became a star and director of Weimer Republic stage and screen. He specialized in playing “fat cats, rogues, and rascals.” He sang “Mack the Knife” in the first production of The Threepenny Opera and political satires in the Berlin Kabaretts. He was a contemporary and friend to Peter Lorre, Fritz Lang, Josef Von Sternburg, and Marlene Dietrich. A precise character actor, he brought to his films a genuine warmth. As a costar noted, “When Gerron was buried in his work, nothing else mattered.” He was sure of himself, his talent, and his worth in the German entertainment industry.
Adolf Hitler was also a performer, a man who wanted to erect his own vision of the ways thing should have been. He loved grand entertainment like Wagner’s operas and Hollywood movies, understood the power of a well-staged rally, rousing anthem or well-edited film. His goals were absurd, but there was nothing humorous about his brutality. In a broken country, with little bread but plenty of circuses, Gerron represented the bohemian while Hitler was the conservative, decadent showman.
The Academy Award-nominated documentary Prisoner of Paradise follows Gerron’s career, culminating in his direction of a Nazi propaganda film in the Therienstadt concentration camp. He was surely flawed, but the film’s tragedy is more Greek than personal, as he appears here a giant forced by smaller men to enact a grim fate. The documentary is a fascinating examination of showman whose profession and abilities are pushed far past their beneficial limitations towards their perverse extremes.
As Berlin’s leading cultural lights fled for Hollywood in the early ‘30s, Gerron refused to leave. When the Nazis banned Jewish talent from working, he traveled around Western Europe looking for jobs and eventually settled in Amsterdam, a haven for exiled Jews. He was eventually shipped to Therienstadt, a former Czech military town converted to a work camp for Jews and high-profile figures, primarily artists. Among the musicians, actors, and directors, a thriving community developed. The Camp Commandant loved cabarets, and on Monday nights, the makeshift company put on their shows for those prisoners leaving for Auschwitz on Tuesday morning (ghostly footage of these performances is shown).
When pressed by the Red Cross to reveal what was going on in the concentration camps, Nazis turned Therienstadt into a Broadway production for an ordained inspection. It was a smashing success, and the Nazis decided to create a “documentary” film about Therienstadt to further appease their Western neighbors. After the first director failed to please Hitler, Gerron was chosen. The film is careful to explore the contradictions in his behavior. According to camp survivors, he wore a scarf and sat in a director’s chair. In the documentary they remember that, “Everyone could see he was thrilled to do this kind of work,” and, “He was a star and he acted like it.” He was also publicly humiliated by his Nazi overseer and not allowed to speak to his cameraman. He was visibly nervous when shooting. A prisoner recalls that, “He was begging them to perform for him, but it would not work.” For betraying them, he was hated by his fellow prisoners. The footage of Gerron’s film is surely haunting. The narration informs us that Gerron conceded, “I can direct a scene, but I cannot erase the horror from their eyes.”
Directors Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender work from extensive interviews with Gerron’s contemporaries and include footage of his movies, plays, and Therienstadt. At times PBS’ stately approach—Ian Holm narrates and the pace is regal—undermines emotional immediacy, and the dramatic recreations are distracting and unnecessary. The effect is that we don’t feel so much like we’re watching another movie about the Holocaust, but a new movie, about an individual life, suddenly and absurdly sucked downward.
Prisoner of Paradise is a fitting rebuke to Life is Beautiful. Entertainment is a diversion, not a survival strategy. The film tells us that Gerron used his considerable skills as a showman to help alleviate the pain of the Jewish exiles in Amsterdam and the prisoners at Therienstadt. But it also points out that his shows were a momentary respite from their pains; laughter could not spare them from hunger, illness, or the fate the Nazis laid out for them. It was a negligible skill to bargain with the Germans, a desperate shuffle that was ultimately turned against him and then of no use at all.
Hitler used performance as a means to an end; according to this film, Gerron wanted to achieve a perpetual state of entertainment. In an interview, an actress recalls, “He was a big strong man, like a child… He didn’t know or perhaps he didn’t want to know how serious the situation really was.” Shortly after the shooting of Gerron’s propaganda film was completed, nearly all the prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz. He still clung to the belief that his movie had secured his pardon. As he was boarding his transport train, a prisoner remembers, “When he was going… it was like a performance.”
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