Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival
Screens Wednesday, May 10, 6:30 pm, at the Museum of Fine Arts, followed by Q&A with Professor Antony Polonsky. Presented by the National Center for Jewish Film’s 20th Annual Film Festival, May 4–21, 2017-->
Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise isn’t new—we’ve seen the horrors of Nazi concentration camps in dozens of films before, including the dichotomy of lifestyles between the SS officers and those in the barracks. But actually, Paradise is new and leaves audiences silent in their seats afterward with mental images and thoughts to process. It’s a work of art about something terrible—not just the Holocaust, but us, humanity, and our susceptibility to evil.
The film’s shot in black and white, and Konchalovsky has said why: “The Holocaust and concentration camps in color is obscene. It’s not true. It’s not what we know.” He means that what we know of the camps’ horrors has come to us in black-and-white photographs. In Paradise, the interior barracks’ scenes are shot close up and make the cramped, filthy, hellish environment—and victims imprisoned therein—physically tangible.
The film’s construction uses intermittent, documentary-style interviews of the three principal characters, adding an extra creative element to the work. The characters are Helmut (Christian Clauss), a young SS officer from the nobility; Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a sinewy Russian aristocrat and Vogue editor; and Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a high-ranking Paris police officer cooperating with the Nazis to round up Jews. These three, dressed in plain gray against an empty background—nowhere space—talk openly about what happened to them during the war. Live scenes from the war itself fill in the details of these narratives. We come to see these interviews more as depositions before an unseen god; the individuals, stripped of earthly accoutrements, are James Joyce’s “shades.” They are dead now and seated in purgatory, their final destination yet to be judged.
Olga and Helmut are the film’s central characters. She’s in the camp for having hidden two Jewish boys. Helmut has come to the camp to investigate corruption, following his success in this role at another camp, where he had the SS leader executed for stealing. Helmut is an upright believer in Hitler’s rhetoric of a perfect Germany, a paradise, and he lives impeccably by the rules—until he discovers Olga in the camp’s supply house and recognizes her as the stunning woman he fell passionately in love with one summer at a luxurious resort. Silent flashbacks to that palatial setting—the elegant men and women in period white—resemble the film art of Renais’s Last Year in Marienbad. Helmut’s flashbacks to idle life on the hotel's grand terrace are as romanticized as his vision of Germany’s perfect future. His naïveté slowly becomes the main focus of the drama and is what leaves the audience pondering, for the childlike joy and zeal in Helmut’s viewpoint leads to delusion, corruption, and self-destruction, or internal rot. The film is a study in evil through a young, attractive man with likeable qualities as he narrates his story but never understands himself as we do. What are we to make of this material? “There are no answers,” the director tells us in a Venice Festival interview, “only questions. We try to answer and always fail.”
Through Helmut’s warm, personable confession about his life, we are shown how an individual latched onto Nazism as the holy grail for a better world. Clauss’s acting is superb, sympathetic, believable. Helmut tells us he comes from a long line of proud nobility and military service to the homeland. But in the early 1930s, embarking on his adult life, he and other “good Germans” felt despair because their world was being destroyed by “Jews and Communists triumphing.” Other comments he makes show us his blindly justified anti-Semitism.
Then, a glimmer of hope came along for him and others—a magnetic speaker, a new political force instilling hope for restoration of the German ideal. Helmut’s face lights up with awe as he tells us, “You had to be there to feel it. His speeches were more than just words. They touched our souls. A great idea had found a great man, and he knew how to express it. Under his leadership, we would not only revive Germany, we would build an entire new world, a paradise for our people, a German paradise on earth.”
Like any evil movement that tries to annihilate another group of human beings, Nazism’s pull can be understood through Helmut’s subjective socio-political needs—to us his weakness, but to him his correct moral code. He’s an easy target, just as ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups today find their disenfranchised, disillusioned, and na-->ïve recruits. Helmut’s sympathetic side in the purgatorial interview contrasts sharply to his SS role in the film’s real life—he’s ice cold, ruthless, and has zero regard for Jews. This contrast in his character—nice guy/horrible guy—is what keeps the audience thinking long after the movie has ended, and for which the director has already told us, “There are no answers.”