Rarely has the word “Paradise” been superimposed across a gloomier image than in the opening credits of Andrei Konchalovsky’s new film, as the screams of a Russian woman recently arrested by Nazis echo through a dim, dank prison corridor — shot in soberest monochrome. Konchalovsky’s robust, absorbing Holocaust drama is built on such unlikely junctures of grace and despair. Centered principally on the sometimes tense, sometimes tender relationship between an aristocratic concentration camp inmate and the SS officer with whom she shares a fleeting romantic history, the film’s tone and outlook is changeable throughout — down to a striking, only semi-successful framing device of docu-style testimonies that hover deliberately between worlds. An uneasy sit cushioned by lustrous, period-evoking B&W lensing and the outstanding performances of Julia Vysotskaya and Christian Clauß, “Paradise’s” enduringly resonant historical focus should secure it the international distribution that largely eluded its veteran helmer’s previous, Venice-garlanded feature “The Postman’s White Nights.”
After “Son of Saul’s” immersive first-person camera gave viewers a visceral new point of view on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the bar for innovation in depicting what is already a comprehensively filmed passage of history was further raised. With its self-consciously classical aesthetic — down to the imposition of artificial wear and tear on the image, creating the impression of a long-buried print — “Paradise” looks emphatically back rather than forward, but its perspective is an unusual one, alternating even-handedly between the raddled, subjective accounts of Nazi oppressor and victim, until they meet ambiguously somewhere in the middle. Among other, less earthly implications, the “paradise” of the title refers to the Aryan idyll that the former repeatedly cites as a motivating dream. Yet the longer he talks — in the bare studio environment, without clear location or era, that Konchalovsky has devised for the film’s “interview” sequences — the less clear it becomes whether or not he believes his own rhetoric.
The film opens in 1942, as refined Russian immigrant Olga (Vysotskaya), a Vogue fashion editor also serving the French Resistance in Paris, is arrested by the Gestapo for harboring two Jewish children in her apartment. Her case is assigned to French-Nazi collaborating officer Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a lecherous family man who seems willing to cut Olga a deal in return for sexual favors. When he abruptly drops out of proceedings, however, she is shipped off to an unspecified, maximum-brutality concentration camp, where she is reunited with her two young wards, but otherwise given every reason to fear the worst.
Philippe is one of only three talking heads in the film’s parallel stream of direct-to-camera statements, and his unexpectedly curtailed arc — after a generous, deliberate window into his home and work lives — initially seems a curious red herring in a film that, at 131 minutes, is confidently unhurried in reaching its narrative heart. It proves the critical key, however, to unlock the relevance and resonance of those enigmatic, after-the-fact interviews, which thereafter alternate the views of a shorn-headed Olga and Helmut (Clauß), the handsome, high-ranking SS golden boy who is assigned by Heinrich Himmler himself (Victor Sukhorukov, in an eccentric caricature) to a senior commanding position in Olga’s camp.
Olga and Helmut immediately recognize each other from a playful, several-summers-ago flirtation — itself detailed in recurring, gleamingly sunlit holiday-film footage that is excerpted in the most nostalgically bittersweet of the film’s rotating registers. As their rekindled but still anxious relationship comes to the fore in the film’s second half, “Paradise” faces an array of potentially redemptive denouements befitting its 1940s wartime-melodrama styling. None of those are exactly promised by the characters’ more detached, rueful interviews — on which the film leans perhaps a little too heavily for emotional clarity in its latter stages. Helmut’s remembrances ricochet between cynical, even critical appraisals of the Nazi ideals and deluded pride in them (“I don’t have to justify my actions; I’ve become an Übermensch”), while Olga dispassionately describes her own suffering while growing more agitated on his behalf: “He knows and appreciates Brahms and Tolstoy. Who did this to him?”
Both actors — blessed with endlessly gaze-worthy faces, in which cinematographer Alexander Simonov’s meticulous lighting keeps finding new expressive accents — are remarkable, their performances entirely complementary in their silences and guarded surges of emotion. There’s a livewire supporting turn, too, from Jakob Diehl as Helmut’s more nakedly skeptical friend and fellow officer Dietrich, restless with self-disgust and homoerotic feeling. Other performances can err on the side of shrill, while matters are not helped by the film’s distracting, frankly clumsy dubbing of actors at certain points — a retrograde detail that is unwelcome in the film’s otherwise careful evocation of golden-age cinema.
Either way, it’s Simonov’s ink-and-porcelain imagery that is the headline star here, not inordinately beautifying the horrors on display but granting them the visual severity and serenity that they deserve. (If the minor scratches and bubbles that occasionally scar the screen seem a throwback affectation too far, at least the lensing itself looks worthy of decades-long preservation.) Konchalovsky and Simonov also deftly exploit the limitations of the Academy ratio throughout, boxing even its unimprisoned characters into the frame as a constant, underlying reminder that no one is leaving this living nightmare entirely free.