The Nazis were evil incarnate; the Holocaust they wrought the most appalling atrocity in human existence. Everyone knows that, except maybe Pat Buchanan. But it’s important to reiterate the fact after watching a nervously amusing film like Radu Mihaileanu’s “Train of Life.” Important because, like its close cousin (and our pal Ron’s, um, favorite film) “Life is Beautiful,” “Train of Life” puts a surprisingly lighthearted and at times downright farcical spin on a horrible episode in our history; in this case the forced relocation of Jews by train to concentration camps. Not exactly the stuff of sitcoms. Schlomo (Lionel Abelanski), the idiot of his “shtetl” or village, sprints into town bearing terrifying news: the Nazis have been clearing Jews out of every village through which they’ve passed and they’ll be to his village soon. The frantic town elders meet to come up with a plan to save the shtetl and Shlomo comes up with a scheme that’s so idiotic, it just might work. He convinces the elders that they should procure a train and deport themselves to Palestine, the Holy Land. The elders approve the zany plan and the village is soon hard at work piecing together the necessary provisions, not the least of which is a train, and selling household goods to raise the necessary cash. The villagers scramble to print forged documents, pick and train the unfortunate men needed to impersonate the hated Nazis, and sewing uniforms for them.
Preposterous? You bet. But the villagers pull it off and are soon clacking down the rails to an uncertain future. Now essentially a road movie, “Train of Life” teems with intrigue (a spreading Communist movement among the refugees, largely played for laughs), moral dilemmas (the Jewish “Nazis'” struggle to resist the dark lure of their assumed power), and romance (instigated by the prized daughter of one of the elders). What it’s desperately short on, surprisingly, is any real life-or-death suspense. Mihaileanu’s real Nazis, when portrayed at all, are at best vaguely threatening and certainly more Keystone Cops than evil incarnate. “The Train of Life” definitely isn’t a bullet train or even an Amtrak on a bad day, for that matter. Yet, it’s not a complete derailment either, which is surprising, given its unlikely premise and schizophrenic nature. The film contains just enough poignant moments, not the least of which is the final haunting shot, to convey at least a slight air of gravitas, thus saving a film that at times almost comes off as an unwitting sequel to “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” Fortunately, it’s not that tasteless…but it’s not that funny, either. Instead, “Train of Life” is a thought-provoking and subversively entertaining chronicle that sheds a quirky light on a death-black era in history.