"You wonder, 'What would I have done in this situation?' Can we judge?" said Silvia Martin, actress and survivor of three concentration camps. "Of course, you need to know the man. I had the opportunity and the privilege to work with him. I don't think he could have existed without the theatre and the dangers, I really don't think he ever understood them."
Martin was referring to Kurt Gerron, a popular German-Jewish stage and film actor/director, who experienced Nazi terror from the viewpoint of an artist. His story is told in the documentary Prisoner of Paradise, directed by Stuart Sender and Malcolm Clarke, which was screened on November 25 at the DGA in Los Angeles.
Renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his performances in the Blue Angel and Threepenny Opera, Gerron was convinced that the power of Hitler and the Nazis was not going to last long enough to necessitate him fleeing Europe. He ignored advice from friends like Fritz Lang, Joseph Von Sternberg and Peter Lorre who urged him to leave, but eventually escape was no longer an option. Ultimately, he was imprisoned in the Jewish concentration camp of Theresienstadt.
At this camp, filled with starvation, degradation and death, Gerron was ordered to write and direct the 1944 Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt (aka The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews) in which he was expected to depict the "utopian" world of the camp. The film was meant to persuade international public opinion that Jews were treated well in concentration camps. In 1944, Gerron died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.
Sender and Clarke's film of Gerron's experiences was nominated for both a DGA Award and an Academy Award. Following the screening, Sender participated in a panel discussion moderated by director/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time). At Sender's request, the panel also included director Agnieszka Holland whose brilliant and extraordinary film, Europa Europa (1990), about the dilemma faced by a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany as he attempts to hide from persecution by joining the Hitler youth, had inspired Sender to be a filmmaker.
The discussion among the panelists was heartfelt and emotional, with all engaging in a dialogue that reiterated, time and again, what an extraordinary crisis Gerron and many others faced during this terrible period in history.
"In some ways we — humanity, I mean — have been escaping the incredibly complex and difficult questions the Second World War posed," Holland said. "The question that is brought is not only Gerron's choice or Holocaust history, but the moral choices, the political choices and our desire to know the truth about the world and ourselves."
According to Sender, he and Clarke worked very hard not to appear to pass any kind of judgment on Gerron in Prisoner of Paradise. "He isn't a hero or a victim," Sender said.
Martin emphasized how impossible it would be to even attempt to judge Gerron's actions. "If it comes to something as horrendous as the Second World War and what happened to the Jews, you cannot imagine something which is not imaginable."