Somewhere in Central Europe in summer 1941, the inhabitants of an isolated shtetl take the initiative to deport themselves — before the Nazis get a chance — in “Train of Life.” Tragicomic account of how Yiddish-speaking Jews secure a train, sew phony Nazi uniforms and divvy up into fake captors and captives in an attempt to reach Palestine via the Soviet Union blends broad humor, wishful thinking and astute psychological observation in a bittersweet but flawed package. Premise lends itself to a fable that’s charming and clever in places but schmaltzy and stereotypical in others. This train will make plenty of scheduled stops at fests before chugging to TV. Pic won an international critics prize at Venice.
Village nutcase Schlomo (Lionel Abelanski) runs to the council of elders with rumors that surrounding shtetls are being obliterated by Nazis and everybody is being herded aboard a train, never to be heard from again. Schlomo, whose voiceover brackets the tale, suggests they “deport” themselves and make a break for the Promised Land.
Based on language skills and appearance, some residents are assigned to play Germans while the bulk of the population will play Jews. The village accountant raids communal coffers to find the wherewithal to purchase a rickety train, and identity papers are forged. As German resembles Yiddish “but without the humor,” one resident’s Austrian cousin tutors the “Nazis” in convincing pronunciation. After a half-hour of onscreen preparations, the whole town pulls up stakes in the middle of the night, with the guy running the locomotive learning from a manual as he goes along.
The fake Nazis — particularly the commanding officer, limned with gusto by Rufus — end up enjoying the measure of power their role affords. The Jews in their care find themselves resenting and plotting against their overlords, even though all passengers are technically on the same side. As the journey progresses, makeshift communist-cum-anarchist Yossi (Michel Muller) riles “the masses” with his comically partial understanding of the party line. First run-in with real Germans is both frightening and funny, and there’s the small matter of resistance fighters determined to dynamite the train.
Romanian-born French helmer Radu Mihaileanu, whose previous pic, “Betrayal,” won the Grand Prix at Montreal in 1993, resolved to address the Shoah via the comic route after seeing “Schindler’s List.” Taking his cue from an almost certainly apocryphal anecdote, scripter-helmer elicits plenty of chuckles grounded in historical and cultural realities. But wobbly tone and pacing slightly dent an otherwise ingenious concept. Uneven pic is badly in need of the Lubitsch touch, a la “To Be or Not to Be.”
Lensed in Romania, pic makes excellent use of multi-ethnic actors and extras with interesting features. Goran Bregovic’s score — sometimes plaintive and melancholy, sometimes frenetic, and awash in klezmer tonalities — is an apt accompaniment.