Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 03, 2018 7:06 am 
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Fantasies and the Holocaust

Paradise is a disturbing World War II film with excellent performances by Julia Vysotskaya (the director's wife) and Christian Clauß and lustrous and handsome black and white images in appropriately retro and claustrophobic academy ratio. It's also a movie that in certain important ways goes very wrong. Some seriously wrong choices and an air of hubris mar what in other ways is an impressive and strangely beautiful film that strives mightily to be an original one.

Andrey Konchalovskiy, the Russian director, has produced a narrative unusual for its sympathetic depiction of people World War II movies don't normally treat so kindly. The title arrives drenched in irony: it appears over the screen in a grim opening sequence when a Russian princess named Olga (Vysotskaya) is screaming as she's locked into a dank cell in Fresnes Prison, south of Paris. She turns out to be an emigrée Vogue fashion editor in Paris who joined the French Resistance and has been caught hiding two Jewish children in her apartment. The time is 1942.

The movie focuses on three people whose into-the-camera ruminations (or interviews?) punctuate scenes of action. They look like prisoners, or are in some kind of limbo whose nature we gather later. Olga tells her story in Russian; a French collaborator tells his in French; and a young German aristocrat who gets a high post in the SS, tells his in German.

The first person to address the camera is plump, bland-looking French-Nazi collaborating officer Jules (Philippe Duquesne). He lives in a very large country house with his wife and young son. Toward her he is rapaciously sexual, while he is kind and attentive to his son. Things are going badly for Germany, and knowing his complicity with the Nazis, Jules' wife is worried. He denies that there is danger - his status is so good, their circumstances so comfortable - but he is working for the Gestapo. When he goes in to the office, Olga is brought to him. and he soon seems willing to cut Olga a deal in return for sexual favors.

Olga offers herself in exchange for lenient treatment of a resistance colleague and herself. The idea of sex with aprincess is too tempting for this stolid bourgeois. The liaison is to begin with a nice dinner and a bottle whose chateau and vintage she has specified. For a while we have entered into both Jules' domestic and working lives. But he is soon out of the picture and things turn bad again for Olga. Later she turns up in a concentration camp.

For a while in the "interview" mode we listen to and watch the lean, young, very aristocratic Helmut (Christian Clauß ). He is a cultivated man, but, like the officer in Vercors' The Silence of the Sea (Jean-Pierre Melville's debut film), also a true believer in Nazi ideology and the fantasy of a pure, Aryan, master race utopia. Helmut is so clearly distinguished, well-bred, and intelligent that we wonder constantly, as later Olga does, how he could believe this stuff (until finally he doubts). That's the point, to show how deeply the madness penetrated.

Helmut is made a Standartenführer, a high SS rank like that of Obersturmbannführer held by the protagonist of Jonathan Littell's prizewinning 2006 French Novel Les bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), which also looks deeply into the mentality of such a person. Helmut gets promoted and assigned to a high post as supervisor in charge of weeding out corruption at a major concentration camp, this honor bestowed by Heinrich Himmler himself in an odd scene that reminded me of Sokurov's Moloch. (Sokurov may be an influence, especially for some of the images.) This scene is one of Konchalovsky's first missteps, because Himmler is played by Viktor Sukhorukov, his voice unconvincingly dubbed by another's in German. It's not the only instance of dubbing, something we don't expect to encounter in this day and age. But this scene is important for the story Himmler tells of Hitler's preposterous fantasy of withdrawing into anonymity as an artist in southern Europe after he has crushed all his enemies.

Another error is the distracting "distressed" effects used on the "interview" films of the three personalities in their prison-like garb addressing the screen, Jules, Olga, and Helmut, unnecessarily insisting on some kind of period authenticity that hardly fits the circumstances. It might be argued that these interpolations as a whole are a misstep and distraction. But the film's curious structure wouldn't have worked without them either. They hold together an otherwise disjointed and arbitrary structure - at the same time doubtless intended to prevent viewers from escaping into the drama and instead permitting Konchalovsky to indulge in philosophizing.

Paradise may impose unity with its monologues, but the action sequences are weakened by a reliance on dubious coincidences. When Olga is in the concentration camp, she suddenly comes upon the two French Jewish children she had been protecting when she was arrested by the Gestapo, and for a while she takes them under her wing. Later a liaison develops between Olga and Helmut, who turn out to have had a memorable, halcyon flirtation in Italy back in 1933. Another misstep: a self-indulgent series of flashbacks to this affair, the lovers draped against each other in pretty clothes, all drenched in sunshine. This is meant to be one "Paradise" that haunts Olga and Helmut; the other is the Nazi fantasy of an Aryan utopia. Helmut makes clear from early in his monologue that he became disenchanted with Nazi horror (though not as explicitly as a fellow officer). He and Olga plan on escaping. But this is too much distraction. Meanwhile, the depiction of the concentration camp - a task whose overwhelming difficulty became clearer when Laszlo Nemes's 2015 Son of Saul set a new standard for such things - is never really convincing.

Though Konchalovsky is in his late seventies, this film in its ambition reminded me of young Brady Corbet's recent directorial debut (also 2015) The Childhood of a Leader, equally bold and beautiful and promising, if not altogether successful. One might wonder if the Russian director may be indirectly influenced by Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier as Corbet clearly was. Paradise also seems more promising than successful.

Konchalovsky's varied career has included collaborating early on with Andrei Tarkovsky on his classic film Andrei Rublev and a detour to Hollywood in the Eighties when he made the thriller Runaway Train with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. His last movie, The Postman's White Nights, an amalgam of documentary elements focused on a small town in Russia, won critical accolades including Best Director at Venice, but didn't do so well commercially. This new feature won the same Venice prize, but has been otherwise mostly a critical flop. No one can deny the lush richness of Alexander Simonov’s camerawork and lighting, however, or the good acting of the principals.

Paradise/рай (Rai), 133 mins., debuted at Venice in 2016 where it won the Best Director prize. It has been shown in about 20 other international festivals and released in 13 countries in 2017, starting with Russia, inclding France (15 Nov.), with a mediocre critical reception (AlloCiné critical rating 3.1). The limited US theatrical release was 6 Oct. 2017, when it was reviewed dismissively by Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times. Screened for this review as part of the 9-15 Feb. 2018 San Francisco Berlin and Beyond festival.




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