On the goose-stepping heels of holocaust deniers in the news comes this DVD release of the ironically titled Paradise (Ray), a 2016 black-and-white film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. It’s a film that’s both affecting and affected—one you can’t help but think could have been made stronger if the central premise had been tweaked just a bit.
To tell a story that’s horrific yet by now familiar, Konchalovsky embraces a documentary style of filmmaking and relies on three main characters to tell their versions on camera. All three appear alone in front of the same desk in a colorless room, with deliberately inserted jump cuts suggesting that their “raw interviews” have been heavily edited. Are they giving testimony before a war crimes tribunal? Talking with a filmmaker?
There’s standard dramatic storytelling here, but from time to time one of the three appears onscreen to tell someone—we’re not sure whom—his or her side of the story in much the same way as contemporary TV reality shows augment the action by intercutting additional commentary, reaction, and perspective from the participants.
The first character we encounter is Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a French aristocrat whose work as a local police chief in 1941 has put him in the position of being a Nazi sympathizer (and accomplice) if he is to continue to do his job and maintain his lifestyle. We see Jules at breakfast with his wife and son, him reading the paper in the kind of ordinary, clichéd routine that spans cultures and generations. Then he goes to his job, which involves directing harsh interrogations and helping the Nazis round up tens of thousands of Jews within his jurisdiction. The breakfast scene and scenes showing him spending time with his son observing a giant anthill in the woods serve to normalize what is, in all actuality, a pretty horrific life. It’s jarring for viewers to watch the equivalent of “Hi, honey, I’m home” behavior after the kind of day he has had, or to watch him take advantage of a woman he arrested, exchanging her freedom for sex—something we gather he does quite often.
Philippe Duquesne in Paradise (Ray) (2016 / Trailer still)
Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a woman we encounter in Jules’ version, is a titled Russian aristocrat whose sympathy for the downtrodden has caused her to join those who have tried to shelter Jewish children and to become a part of the French Resistance. We follow her as she is arrested and housed in a French prison, then transferred to a concentration camp where she is put upon to keep order in one of 106 barracks, each built for 700 occupants but crammed with 1,200 prisoners. We see her, too, in flashbacks from happier times and witness how her life changes after she meets an aristocratic German officer with whom she had an affair many years ago. As he becomes involved with her again she draws easier duty, working as a sorter in the warehouse where the belongings of the prisoners are heaped into huge mounds that visually echo that anthill in the forest. When she speaks on camera it’s clear that her hard life has worn her down—yet even more chilling to know that her life has been the easiest among those who suffered in the camps.
Christian Claub in Paradise (Ray) (2016 / Trailer still)
The third main character is Helmut (Christian Claub), an aristocratic German whose Ph.D. work on the Russian writer Anton Chekhov was interrupted by the war. Commissioned by Heinrich Himmler himself to serve as an officer in the SS, he is tasked with investigating operations at all the concentration camps in order to put a stop to the individual theft and corruption that is syphoning money away from the Reich war effort.
That’s the basic structure, but there’s not much in Paradise to shock. After all, Orson Welles’ showed footage of concentration camps way back in 1946 with The Stranger (1946), and theHolocaust has been dramatized ever since in such highly publicized and widely circulated films as Sophie’s Choice (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Life Is Beautiful (1998), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), and The Reader (2008). But while the material may not be new, the treatment is provocative. In choosing to film in black and white, Konchalovsky isn’t just striving for historical accuracy. He uses predominantly natural and low-key lighting to highlight the moral ambiguity and bleak circumstances, often crowding his closed-form frames to further suggest the confinement that characters feel both spatially and emotionally.
Whether by accident or design, Konchalovsky also shapes this three-pronged tale with scenes that illustrate a literary naturalism, determinism, or a mixture of both. Without knowing who is conducting the on-camera interviews with the three main characters, viewers are invited to mentally conduct their own investigations, to weigh the stories that the characters tell against the “facts” of the traditional filmic narratives that are depicted. Why are they being investigated? Who’s trying to get to the bottom of it all? And what, exactly, is the point of intersection among the three—the presumed incident that binds them together in the past, present, and possibly future? In short, we are prone to judge these interviews from the perspective of a witness positioned behind a two-way mirror.
Naturalism posits that human behavior is dictated largely by the laws and forces of nature (e.g., survival of the fittest), rather than by moral or spiritual commitments—more instinctive than moral or rational. That philosophy is first evoked here with the cross editing of two scenes involving Jules and Olga. The policeman confesses that he’s powerfully attracted to the “Russian princess” because she’s unique and because he can feel her strength, her “animal-like strength”. Olga, on camera, talks about why she agreed to trade sex for her freedom, confessing that she fears pain and is ashamed by that fear because “it feels so animal-like”. Had he ordered her to be tortured like the other suspected resistance fighter, “I would have told him everything,” she says. In both cases the emphasis isn’t on a decision influenced by religious or philosophical morality, but rather on their animal-like responsives—something viewers may recall from the fiction of well-known literary naturalists like Jack London and Stephen Crane.
The idea of instinctive behavior is reinforced soon afterwards when Jules surprises his wife by taking her roughly in the first-floor hallway of their home and afterwards says on-camera, “I don’t know where my lust for Agnes came from,” but he says he suddenly had to “do her” before he left for work. Is naturalism the default when dehumanization occurs or when situations become desperate? That’s certainly suggested by a corrupt Nazi concentration camp commandant, who remarks, “The further our troops retreat, the more corruption we’ll see,” and it’s more than evident among the prisoners. We witness women fighting over the shoes of a woman whom they notice has just died—no thought of the woman or contemplation of her death, just a struggle based on basic needs. People would do anything to survive. As Olga remarks, “I could just say, ‘Here’s a pack [of cigarettes], go kill that one’ and it would be done.”
Such is Paradise, a film that gets its title from Helmut’s explanation for why he bought into the Third Reich despite recognizing the exaggerations of their anti-Semitic propaganda. “You had to be there to feel it,” he says. His speeches were more than just words. They touched our souls. A great idea had found a great man and he knew how to express it. Under his leadership we would not only revive Germany … we would build an entire new world … a paradise for our people. A German paradise on earth.”
Framed this way, those who followed Hitler seem uncomfortably similar to the women who would kill for cigarettes or fight over a pair of old shoes, though they knew their own time on earth was limited. It’s a powerful message, reinforced by a scene from happier times when figures dissolve—certainly, one that was sufficient to carry the film without the director having to rely on a conceptual gimmick.
Paradise is filmed in Russian, German, French, and Yiddish, with English subtitles as a default. Also included is a 23-minute bonus film by Luka Popadic, “Red Snow”, in which a German lieutenant is tasked with interrogating a French Resistance captive or else, his superior informs him, he will have to execute 100 townspeople for the killing of a single German soldier, though the short film is nowhere near as successful in conveying a life caught in desperate circumstances as Paradise.
Note: *”…Illusions buried in ruins…” is excerpted from the Director’s Statement.