Lost in the shuffle of more modern docus, “Prisoner of Paradise” is an important and smoothly mounted meditation on moral choices within the entertainment biz — and the consequences of industryites turning a blind eye to outside dangers. Pan best documentary Oscar nominee last season and winner of a Canadian Directors Guild docu prize, pic will follow limited theatrical showings with a solid afterlife on disc and among the international pubcasters who helped make it.
One of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis was their attempt to sell the Holocaust as something good for humanity and, especially, good for the Jews.
Kurt Gerron was a fabulously successful cabaret and film director and performer — he staged the breakthrough version of “Threeprenny Opera,” played opposite Marlene Dietrich in the “The Blue Angel” and gave Peter Lorre his start in pics. Later, the Nazis chased the tall, rotund figure out of Berlin, although Goebbels used some of Gerron’s footage to make his case for racial hatred in the vicious propaganda pic “The Eternal Jew.” The actor washed up in Paris and Amsterdam, starting new stage and film careers in each locale, before being caught and sent to the Terezin transit camp. There he was bullied and cajoled into making “The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews,” a grotesque propaganda film about how wonderful the place was–a picture still on constant display in the Terezin museum theater.
Through it all, Gerron kept himself almost absurdly apart from the politics of each time and place. This assured his survival, up to a point, but his ego often got the best of him, as when, well into the German occupation, he turned down a ticket to Hollywood offered by Warner Bros., because it wasn’t first class. He ended up in a cattle car instead.
Clarke, a versatile Brit who divides his time between L.A. and Montreal, and earned a DGA nom for the pic, slightly overstates, (via effective narration from Ian Holm), the question about what Gerron should have done. But this “Prisoner” remains mindful that none of this should have happened in the first place.
Blend of archival footage, talking-head interviews with survivors and subtle recreations is seamless, conveying a hothouse atmosphere crammed with creative types until almost all were murdered. Provocative pic also incorporates material shot for Ilona Ziok’s 1999 German-made docu “Kurt Gerron’s Karussell.”