On a recent weekend getaway to Toronto, I availed myself of the opportunity to see the only public screening in North America of one of the contenders for this year's best documentary Oscar . the joint American-Canadian production, PRISONER OF PARADISE. It's not the best documentary I've seen this year, but it's solid, deals with an interesting topic, and I strongly suspect that it's going to take home this year's prize. More on this later.
Narrated by Ian Holm, the film opens with scenes of a utopian community lovingly described as being comprised completely of `like-minded individuals.' The grounds look well-kept, the people (especially the children) look happy and in good health, the arts flourish, and sporting activities are regularly enjoyed by all. But suddenly, Holm informs us that this seemingly-successful communal experiment is all . a huge lie.
The `community' is actually the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, where prominent Jews who would be missed were congregated into a sprawling and photogenic (from the outside) old fortress whose barricades to external forces proved equally efficient at keeping prisoners contained. And the footage is from a particularly notorious piece of Nazi propaganda - `The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews' (1944), a film produced to dispel rampant rumors about the wholesale mistreatment and extermination of Jews by the Germans. The film then shifts the focus to the director of the film -- Jewish inmate Kurt Gerron, a onetime hugely successful character actor, cabaret performer and movie director in pre-Nazi Germany.
If, by chance, you're a student of early cinema who's seen Josef Von Sternberg's classic, THE BLUE ANGEL, you've already seen a Gerron performance . he's the magician who uses the broken Emil Jannings as a stage prop late in the film. He also played the doctor in the Georg Pabst-directed Louise Brooks movie DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. On stage, he was the first performer to ever sing `Mack the Knife,' appearing in the original 1926 production of Bertolt Brecht's THE THREEPENNY OPERA. And besides being a success as a performer, he also directed some box office hits starring major German stars in the years immediately preceding the Nazi takeover. In terms of appearance, familiarity to audiences and show biz success, he was something of a German amalgam of Danny DeVito and Jackie Gleason.
The first half of the film follows Gerron's odyssey to this final directing job -- from the beginning of his success as a performer . to his showbiz heyday . to his flight to France and then to Holland following the Nazi clampdown on Jews . to his capture following the German occupation of Holland . and finally, to his arrival at Theresienstadt. (A journey that included two missed opportunities to join friends like Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre, who'd successfully relocated to Hollywood.) The second half of the film deals with the situation at Theresienstadt, and features many interviews with survivors.
In terms of documentary technique, the film is pretty much by the book, top-heavy with archival footage and talking heads. (There are also two re-creation scenes -- clearly labeled as such, thus averting a major documentary no-no that has cost Errol Morris dearly in the past.) But I never found my interest wandering at any time during the 97-minute running time. The survivors make it known that the prisoners resented Gerron's collaboration, but the filmmakers claim that Gerron consulted with Jewish elders before making it and received their permission to engage in an activity that would delay the word all detainees feared . `transport,' which meant delivery to a death camp.
In terms of topicality, there's an interesting side story dealing with an evil regime successfully thwarting international inspection - what emboldened the Nazis to make the propaganda film in the first place was their unqualified success in convincing a visiting Red Cross inspector that everything was fine at the camp via a carefully orchestrated tour of the facilities. This aspect, coupled with four additional factors, should make it a very strong contender:
1. Its `one of our own' main character (remember SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE beating out SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for best picture a few years back?)
2. Its Holocaust-related theme (a traditional favorite in the documentary category - INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS, ANNE FRANK REMEMBERED, HOTEL TERMINUS, etc.)
3. Its traditional documentary techniques . Hollywood frowns on creativity and visual panache in this category
4. The desperation among Hollywood pragmatists to prevent Michael Moore from taking the podium in front of a world audience in these times
You make think that it's impossible for a film with such little exposure to trump the record-setting success of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, but for an MPAA voter to be eligible to vote for best documentary, he or she HAS to see ALL of the films in nomination at a theatrical screening and certify the date and place in writing. And one of the nominees (WINGED MIGRATION) is withholding the film from screenings, so only a tiny handful of voters are going to be voting in this category this year.
If any of the eligible documentaries is going to galvanize anti-Moore sentiment among the aged (and far less liberal as a whole than you might suspect) MPAA members who ARE eligible to vote, this is the one. If it wasn't for the fact that he'd actually have to admit to SEEING Michael Moore's movie in order to be eligible to vote, I'd bet the FARM that PRISONER would be Charlton Heston's choice.
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