"Prisoner of Paradise" is an Academy Award-nominated documentary that tells the story of Kurt Gerron. A beloved and well-known German-Jewish actor, director, and cabaret star in Berlin in the 1920s he is most remembered for co-starring with Marlene Dietrich in the classic film "The Blue Angel." He also appeared opposite Peter Lorre in "Bombs Over Monte Carlo" and sang "Mack the Knife" in the original production of "The Threepenny Opera." But footage of Gerron to present the idea of the archetypal Jew in early propaganda films such as "The Eternal Jew." The reason Gerron is the subject of this PBS documentary is because of the last creative effort of his life. It was Gerron who directed the Nazi propaganda film made about the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which was known as "The Model Ghetto."
Theresienstadt was the German name for Terezín, the name of a former military fortress and garrison town in the Ústí nad Labem Region of the Czech Republic. During World War I the fortress was used as a prisoner of war camp and Gavrilo Princip, who started the war by assassinating Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and his wife, died of there in 1918. The Gestapo took over the fortress in 1940 and the following year was turned by Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS, into an internment camp for local Jews. By the summer of 1942 that population had been exterminated and the site was a closed environment for privileged Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria.
When the Nazis permitted a visit by the Red Cross to counter rumors about the extermination camps, thousands of Jews were deported to Auschwitz to avoid the appearance of overcrowding in Theresienstadt. Fake shops and cafes were built to make it seems the Jews were living in relative comfort. There was even the performance of a children's opera, "Brundibar." The hoax was such a success the Nazis decided to make a propaganda film at Theresienstadt and shooting began in February 1944 with Gerron as director. When the filming was done most of the "cast" were transported to Auschwitz. Gerron and his wife were executed in the gas chambers on October 28, 1944. However, the film he made (Often called "The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews" but was actually entitled "Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet"), was never released although edited pieces were used for propaganda purposes, which is why only segments of it remain today.
Narrated by Ian Holm, "Prisoner of Paradise" explains how Gerron, unlike Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and other German-Jews in the motion picutre industry, did not get out of Europe. When Jews were no longer allowed to work in Germany, Gerron fled first to Paris and then Amsterdam, which became the last refuge for Jewish artists. There were opportunities for Gerron to go to the United States to work in Hollywood, but he passed them by and when he was desperate for an offer his letters went unanswered.But he ended up in Theresienstadt. This documentary by Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender combines film footage from Gerron's movie career along with still photographs from his life, footage shot by the Nazis in Theresienstadt and elsewhere, contemporary footage of places such as Theresienstadt, and interviews with people who knew Gerron throughout the period being covered, such as the young girl who remembers him from happy days at a resort.
The documentary begins with Holm describing a utopian community of artists, which, of course, turns out to be the Theresienstadt of Gerron's film. The most poignant moment comes when we hear Gerron sing "Mack the Knife" while one of his old suits is displayed surrounded by candelabras and studio lights on the Marlene Dietrich stage at Babelsberg Film Studios. The most ironic comes when film of Gerron doing a magic trick is superimposed with images of transport trains heading for the death camps. However, the most horrifying artifact in the documentary is that of a map that the Nazis used for the "impromptu" tour of the ghetto taken by the Danish Red Cross inspectors. Every stopped was planned, timed and choreographed just like it was just one long tracking shot for a movie.
The Red Cross inspector, who is interviewed on film, had asked the commandant to keep the choir together they heard singing together. You will not be surprised as to how that particular story ends. But the point of "Prisoner of Paradise" is not to surprise you with new information about this particular aspect of the Holocaust. Remembering Gerron's story because his face and name are preserved on film also allows the nameless faces of his final film and all those whose lives were used as photographic lies for their own deaths to be remembered as well.