Prisoner of Paradise
Paramount // Unrated // $24.99 // April 12, 2005
Review by John Sinnott | posted April 26, 2005
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

The Academy Award nominated documentary Prisoner of Paradise tells the life story of Kurt Gerron, an actor and talented director who was popular in pre-war Germany.  Living during the insanity that was Nazi Germany, Gerron, a Jew, was taken to a concentration camp.  There he was ordered to make an impossible film; one that turned the horror of a concentration camp into a paradise.

Kurt Gerron was a star of both the stage and screen in pre-war Germany.  He starred in the classic film The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich and directed several popular films.  But all that changed when the Nazi's came to power.  Gerron was a Jew fled the country leaving behind his substantial houses and most of the money he had earned.  With his family and parents to support, he settled in Paris, then later moved to Amsterdam in search of work.  While many of his contemporaries emigrated to the US and South America, for some strange reason Gerron stayed in Europe.

When the Nazi's marched in though, Gerron and his family were shipped in a cattle car to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt in the present day Czech Republic.  Crowded, with little food of clean water, many of the greatest Jewish artists in Europe found themselves in this camp.  The commandant allowed them to put on shows and cabarets, and in these Gerron proved to be vastly entertaining and was noticed by the higher ups.

As the Allies landed in France, news of what was happening to all the European Jews who had disappeared was beginning to leak out.  The neutral countries were starting to pressure Berlin into releasing details.  To appease these countries, it was decided that the Red Cross could let an inspector come to one camp, Theresienstadt.  Thousands of the Jews were transported to Auschwitz for extermination so the ghetto wouldn't look over crowded.  The camp was cleaned and decorated, and even a pool was installed.  The Red Cross agent, a young man of 26, was taken on a carefully planed tour showing people making bread and a Jazz band playing in a café.  The ruse worked, and the inspector gave the camp a glowing recommendation.  If one person could be fooled, why not try to fool everyone?

It was then that the Germans decided to make a film, showing how lovely and wonderful the concentration camps were.  The picked Kurt Gerron to write and direct the film, and he pored his heart into the production, creating a film that was better than anything the German's expected.

Told through contemporary photos and film clips and through the stories of camp survivors, Prisoner of Paradise is a compelling and interesting documentary, which raises as many questions as it answers.  Why did Gerron stay in Europe when others were leaving?  He even raised money to send Peter Lorre to Hollywood, but didn't go himself.  In one heart breaking scene, it is revealed that he did have an offer from a Hollywood studio, but they refused to pay for a 1st class ticket, so he turned them down.

The film touches on the question of whether Gerron should have made his film, but doesn't dwell on it.  They put forth the premise that he was in love with movies, and took the assignment so that he could direct once again, though I think pragmatic concerns, such as the fact that he'd be killed if he refused, played a more important role in his decision.  The one fact that does support the film theory is that Gerron worked, and worked hard, to make a very good film that did just what the Nazi's wanted.  He was able to turn a concentration camp into a model city full of culture, art and happy citizens.

The DVD:


The stereo English soundtrack fits the program well.  The narration and dialog is very clear, and the few sound effects and the incidental music sound clean.  There are no subtitles.


The non-anamorphic widescreen image is very good.  The WWII era film clips show their age, and the old photos are sometimes blurry, but this is to be expected.   The contemporary segments are clear and crisp.


There are no extras on this disc.  It is very disappointing that the film that Gerron created for the Nazis, the 23 minute long Theresienstadt, wasn't included.  Including that would have made this a complete package.

Final Thoughts:

This was a very good movie.  Equal parts biography and Holocaust tale, the film is able to explore Gerron's life while also commenting on the strangeness of having a Jew create propaganda for the government that is killing his people.  An engrossing and captivating film, Prisoner of Paradise is Highly Recommended.

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