In the 1940s, the Nazis recast Gerron, a star of stage and screen in Weimar, Germany, as a concentration camp prisoner and forced him to direct a film portraying the camp as a kind of enlightened Jewish paradise. Gerron's life provides an exceptional story, but Prisoner of Paradise, directed by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender, tells it in a rudimentary way.
Gerron was a big, heavyset performer who made a career playing swells, thugs and buffoons. He fled Berlin when Hitler gained power to eke out an existence in France and Holland, where he was arrested in 1942. So-called "useful Jews" such as Gerron were shipped to Theresienstadt, a brutal camp that kept its prisoners alive in case the international community came looking for them.
Prisoner of Paradise uses interviews, archival documents and at times dramatic re-creations (mostly unobtrusive, black-and-white newsreel-style footage) to illustrate how the Nazis falsely presented Theresienstadt as a Jewish haven. Faced with the choice of certain death in Auschwitz or making a documentary about the camp as a "utopian society" of art and science, Gerron chose the latter.
Prisoner of Paradise raises troubling questions about the moral fallibility of artists and their craft. After Gerron left Germany, Hitler propagandist Joseph Goebbels showed clips of the actor's most unsavory roles in a notorious anti-Semitic film -- in a sense, turning the movie star's images against him. And Prisoner suggests that, up until his arrest, Gerron's love of film and theater blinded him to the opportunities he had to escape to Hollywood or England.
The eyewitnesses in Prisoner of Paradise contradict each other when they describe Gerron's work on the fraudulent documentary. Some say the ethical dilemma crushed him, others said the chance to make any movie, even a lie at the expense of his fellow Jews, energized his spirits.
Prisoner of Paradise suffers from limitations. It relies on second- and third-hand interviewees, and often the film speculates unconvincingly on Gerron's thoughts and feelings. Ian Holm's narration contains overly melodramatic lines like, "Here was a chance to work again, but only by making a deal with the devil." Prisoner of Paradise doesn't need such overheated words. The facts of Gerron's life prove more strange and horrifying than any of the performer's entertainments.
Peachtree Film Society screens Prisoner of Paradise March 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Lefont Garden Hills Cinema, 2835 Peachtree Road. $7.50 ($6.50 for PFS members). 770-729-8487. www.peachtreefilm.org.