The release of Prisoner of Paradise, an extraordinary documentary about the German entertainer Kurt Gerron, has been timed to coincide with Holocaust Remembrance Week, but the film would also fit snugly on a double bill with My Architect, an equally remarkable portrait of the renowned architect Louis Kahn that has enjoyed an astonishingly long shelf life in Los Angeles movie theaters. Gerron was a Jew who began his career as a satirist of the Nazis and ended up as their stool pigeon; Kahn, an architect who kept three families on the boil without noticeable guilt or anguish. Yet despite the different times and circumstances in which they lived, some weird symmetries between Gerron and Kahn raise bracing questions about the extra-aesthetic responsibilities of the artist. Like Kahn, Gerron was a homely man whose enormous reserves of charm, charisma and talent took him far, and finally brought him low. He was a careerist so devoted to his art that he failed to pay attention to, or willfully ignored, what was going on around him. Gerron lived in more testing times than Kahn, and the consequences of his actions were broader and more catastrophic than Kahn’s, but his lapses stemmed from the same monomaniacal focus on creative work to the exclusion of all else.
A well-upholstered showboater with small, glittering black eyes, pouchy cheeks, a voracious appetite for work and an ego to match, Kurt Gerron rose to fame in the feverishly creative and cheeky world of prewar Berlin cabaret as a director and beloved stage actor, best known for his wicked rendering of “Mack the Knife” in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. He later turned to film acting (notably opposite Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel) and then to directing. The high life he lived among the cultural cream of Berlin was brutally cut short in 1933 when the Nazis closed down one of his films in midproduction. Devastated more by the interruption than by its political ramifications, Gerron turned down repeated pleas from fellow artists Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre and Josef von Sternberg to flee with them to Hollywood — in part, characteristically, because he couldn’t travel first class. He tried with some success to retool his career in Paris and Amsterdam before being shipped off to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp that housed a disproportionate number of artists and intellectuals and maintained a lively cultural life until the end. It was there, in 1944, that Gerron made his final deal with the devil and became the creative force behind the infamous Nazi propaganda film The Führer Gives a City to the Jews, which hoodwinked Western observers into the belief that Theresienstadt was a cultural paradise and that Jews in concentration camps were well treated.
Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender, who made Prisoner of Paradise, also have plans to turn Gerron’s life into a feature film. There’s no need: This sympathetic but clear-eyed documentary, narrated by British actor Ian Holm, gives us a life riddled with more bitter dramatic ironies than any fiction could offer. Clarke and Sender both come from television bearing all the usual tools of the ubiquitous Holocaust documentary. Sparing in their use of dramatic re-enactments, they’ve dug up amazing archival footage and photos of Gerron at home, at work and even in the camp, as well as affecting commentary from former friends and colleagues, including survivors from the camps who testify to both his magnetism and his genius — and to the fact that he agreed to make the film not just in order to survive, but to be working and to achieve some of his lost stature. It didn’t help him. The Nazis humiliated him, the Jews hated him, and on October 28, 1944, the day before the gas chambers were closed for good, Gerron and his wife were shipped off to Auschwitz and murdered.
“The things Kurt Gerron did had no moral dimension, and no moral consequences,” declares one loyal fellow artist stoutly. Disagree all you like — what complicates all judgment on Gerron’s sins is that he would have met the same fate without committing them. Still, the question remains whether artists have special license to forgo their principles and their decency. For all its staidly conventional presentation, Prisoner of Paradise, along with other documentaries like Hitler’s Secretary and Paragraph 175, shifts the focus of Holocaust inquiry from the banal and rhetorical Isn’t it awful what the Nazis did? to the more difficult question for Germans and Jews alike: What would you have done in this person’s place? If we think we know the answer, we’re probably lying, at least to ourselves. If the question gives us the shakes, we’re about where we should be.
PRISONER OF PARADISE | Directed by MALCOLM CLARKE and STUART SENDER | Written by CLARKE | Produced by CLARKE and KARL-
EBERHARD SCHAEFER | Released by Menemsha Films | At the Music Hall