Prisoner of Paradise

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) is a classic of cinema, renowned for its atmospheric cinematography, tragic themes, and the introduction of Marlene Dietrich to international audiences shortly before she and Sternberg left Germany and emigrated to Hollywood. But less well known in this country is Kurt Gerron, the actor who played Kiepert, the rotund magician and manager of the film’s key setting, the Blue Angel theatre itself.

In fact, Gerron was one of the most popular character actors and directors in Germany at the time–he was immortalized by his singing performance of “Mack the Knife” in Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera stage production in 1928. But he was also Jewish, and when the Nazis began their rise to power, Gerron was inevitably persecuted (clips from his films were used in the anti-Semitic agitprop, The Eternal Jew), forced to flee throughout Europe, and ultimately, murdered in Auschwitz.

Malcolm Clarke’s and Stuart Sender’s riveting new Oscar-nominated documentary, Prisoner of Paradise, details Gerron’s career, its meteoric fame and its devastating conclusion. But they focus on the twisted lie Gerron was forced to perpetrate between these bookends of his life–the creation of a Nazi propaganda film, The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City (1944), extolling the imaginary virtues of life inside a concentration camp.

In order to provide spin control for the growing rumors and mounting evidence of the Holocaust the international community was beginning to collate, the Nazis turned the ghetto of Theresienstadt in Terezin, Czechoslovakia into an elaborate public relations facade. Jews the Nazis deemed cultural icons–artists, scholars, “visible Jews”–were corralled there by the thousands and allowed a modicum of pleasure in occasional prisoner revues. The Nazis promoted the camp as a “resort” and many Jews even purchased a right to die there. Despite a huge number of deaths stemming from overcrowding, disease, lack of food, and mass deportations to Auschwitz, the camp itself was not equipped for exterminations.

It was, however, equipped with surrounding greenery and a swimming pool, flowers, benches and an athletic field–none of which were ever populated, of course, except for when the Nazis invited the Danish Red Cross to visit in order to “prove” how well the Jews were being treated in captivity. Amazingly, the ruse worked, and the Nazis then decided Gerron, a current inmate, would be the ideal director of a film celebrating Theresienstadt that could be distributed around the world. For Gerron to refuse would’ve meant certain death. His fellow inmates encouraged him to survive by any means necessary.

Prisoner of Paradise is narrated by Ian Holm and sensitively reconstructs this horrific milieu while telling Gerron’s life story and investing it with deserved compassion. It dramatically juxtaposes interviews with camp survivors and historians with clips recovered from existing remnants of Gerron’s movie, which amazingly survive despite Nazi efforts to destroy the film as the war drew to a close. Prisoner is an elegant and deeply moving portrait planned for eventual broadcast on PBS and the BBC. Keep an eye on its official website for screening dates.