“Prisoner of Paradise” is a documentary that details the curious life of Kurt Gerron, a German-Jewish actor and filmmaker who is barely remembered today for his unlikely contribution to the Nazi propaganda machinery as the director of a phony documentary on the life of the Jewish prisoners at the Thereseinstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Gerron rose to fame in Berlin during the 1920s and 1930s for his extravagant performances in theatrical and film productions. His major triumphs came in the original stage version of “The Threepenny Opera,” in which he introduced the song “Mack the Knife,” and in the 1931 film “The Blue Angel,” in which he played the owner of the cabaret where Marlene Dietrich entertained. Gerron also directed several frothy romantic comedy films that were very popular with German audiences. But after the Nazi rise to power, he was barred from working in the German entertainment industry and was forced to move to Paris and then to Amsterdam, where he struggled to find assignments as a cabaret performer and a film director.
For no clear reason, Gerron repeatedly rejected suggestions to follow his fellow German expatriates Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder to Hollywood. At one point, he received the offer of airplane tickets from Warner Bros., but he turned the studio down because the tickets were not in first class.
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Gerron was apprehended in Amsterdam and was soon shipped to the Thereseinstadt concentration camp, which had been put aside as a special interment center for Jewish scientists, academics, artists and performers who were captured by the Nazis. In the summer of 1944, the Nazis decided to create a propaganda film for release in neutral European countries showing how well the Thereseinstadt prisoners were being treated. As the sole film director imprisoned there, Gerron was called upon to helm the project. Despite earning the animosity of his fellow prisoners for collaborating with the Nazi, and working under daily humiliations and insults by his Nazi captors, Gerron completed the film. But ultimately it was a waste of time and energy: the film was never released and Gerron was later transported to Auschwitz, where he was killed upon arrival (one day before the Auschwitz death machinery was shut down).
In “Prisoner of Paradise,” Gerron comes across as an enigma. His desire to entertain and create is clearly obvious, given his profession, yet his seemingly foolish decision not to escape from Europe despite several opportunities is never properly addressed. The film’s off-the-cuff suggestion that Gerron was too involved in his work in Paris or Amsterdam to venture across the Atlantic seems unsatisfactory and superficial, especially when the film states that he helped raised funds to help another German-Jewish expatriate, Peter Lorre, gain passage to Hollywood. Actually, the film’s research is far off here–Lorre left the Continent in 1934 and settled in London, making two films for Alfred Hitchcock before arriving in America with a Hollywood contract.
“Prisoner of Paradise” interviews many of the surviving Thereisnstadt prisoners, who share their recollections of Gerron and life in the concentration camp. Their willingness to return to Thereisnstadt for the filming of their recollections is a tribute to their bravery and will to overcome.
Ironically, Gerron’s film itself is barely shown here, and when scenes are presented they are in fleeting out-of-order fragments. The film’s title, “Hitler Gives a City to the Jews,” is not even stated.
As a record of the Holocaust, “Prisoner of Paradise” is not unlike any of the hundred-plus films on the subject which have been produced in the past dozen years–there is nothing here that hasn’t been explored endlessly before. As a record of one man’s life and death struggle in the midst of the madness, it is less than satisfactory.
“Prisoner of Paradise” actually received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary in 2002, which is more of a tribute to the Academy’s conspicuous fondness for Holocaust-related documentaries than to the qualities of this particular production.