Owen Gleiberman
December 03, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Prisoner of Paradise

Current Status
In Season
96 minutes
Limited Release Date
Malcolm Clarke, Stuart Sender

We gave it a B

It was a work of propaganda so perverse one is shocked to realize that even the Nazis could have thought of it. In 1944, the concentration camp of Theresienstadt (at Terezin) was made into the subject of a film to be shown to the outside world. The movie didn’t depict any horrors. Instead, it used the camp, which was housed in a picturesque stone village originally built in 1780, as the backdrop for a ghoulishly fictionalized ”ghetto paradise,” in which actual inmates, wearing bright smiles along with their yellow stars, were shown happily eating meals, playing in orchestras, and engaging in robust soccer tournaments.

The documentary Prisoner of Paradise presents clips from this mad charade, which are nearly surreal in their grotesquerie, but mostly it’s a portrait of the man who staged it. His name is Kurt Gerron, and he was a popular actor and director of the German stage and screen. He was also Jewish, and one of the camp’s inmates.

You may recognize him from ”The Blue Angel,” where he played the impresario, looking like a more corpulent, harsh-featured Edward G. Robinson. In the first part of ”Prisoner of Paradise,” Gerron skips around Europe during Hitler’s assault, staging cabaret shows in locations like Amsterdam, and the movie attains the minor, footnote-to-history fascination of a ”Zelig Goes to War.” Ultimately, Gerron is imprisoned by the Nazis, and he strikes his deal with the devil: For the cameras, he will make Theresienstadt look like heaven. His terrible film was never shown in the places it was meant for, but in ”Prisoner of Paradise” it reveals a queasy corner of the Nazi mind that tried to imagine a concentration camp as it fantasized the inmates might have.

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