Paradise (2016): Written by Elena Kiseleva and Andrei Konchalovsky, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Christian Clauss, Philippe Duquesne, Peter Kurth, Jakob Diehl, and Vera Voronkova. Running Time: 130 minutes.
Paradise is almost confessional in its style; 3 characters, a French prosecutor working for the Vichy regime in France, a Russian aristocrat condemned to a concentration camp for trying to save Jewish kids, and an SS officer moving quickly up the chain of command, all comment on various parts of the movie’s story while sitting at a table, facing the camera. Are they being interrogated? Are these video testimonies taken after the war? We don’t know at first, and I won’t spoil the answer, because this set-up is part of what makes Paradise a uniquely moving piece of filmwork, easily one of the best movies I’ve yet seen in 2017.
The Frenchman, Jules, appears mostly in the first part of the film, as he is the one who receives the case of the Russian aristocrat, Olga, (the arrestingly lovely Yuliya Vysotskaya) arrested for hiding away Jews. At first, she tries her hardest to put on a tough, you-won’t-get-nothing-out-of-me act, but she quickly admits in her cutaways that she abhors all pain, and if anyone had so much as raised a hand to her she’d have spilled the beans in an instant. Through a bit of luck, though, she never faces that choice, but still ends up stuck in a concentration camp, where she happens to learn (to her dismay) that some of the people she’d hidden earlier did not manage to escape capture after all.
Her fortunes soon turn again though; as part of an anti-corruption campaign to weed out those using the concentration camps to enrich themselves at the expense of the state, Heinrich Himmler sends Helmut, an up-and-coming officer from a well-to-do family, to investigate the head commander of the camp Olga is at. As it turns out, they actually know each other from before the war; they’d met as part of a group traveling in Italy, and had had a briefly flirtatious affair, even though she was engaged at the time.
Helmut soon pulls her out of the daily toil of the camp by insisting that she work for him as a housemaid. This allows her all sorts of privileges and luxuries she otherwise wouldn’t have access to, but also condemns her in the eyes of the other women in her bunk as a Nazi whore and a traitor. This perhaps one of the most thought-provoking parts of the movie, examining how quickly we can lose our humanity when we are pushed to do so (in one scene we see her taking the shoes of a dying woman for herself), but also how quickly we can regain it again when things get just a bit easier. Olga reminds us in her testimony that it’s remarkable how much the endless need for food can dominate the heart and mind when scarce, and how much easier everything else in life becomes should that burning worry suddenly fall away.
Part of the film’s enduring strength is how none of its characters are thoroughly demonized or idealized. Olga is, in most respects, the protagonist, but her efforts to save Jews aside, she’s far from an angel. She has her weaknesses, her own demons, and in most (but, crucially, not all) cases she is quick to put her own welfare above that of others. The same goes for the Nazi officer. He gets more than a little screen time devoted to expounding (with sickening self-assurance) on how marvelous a boon National Socialism is for the human race, but there are enough moments between him and Olga (as well as some excellent scenes with a disillusioned old friend of his returning from the front) to suggest his devotion to it might not be so wholesale as he might want us to think.
In addition to its black-and-white aesthetic, which I am increasingly convinced is one of the best ways to visually depict the Holocaust, the script of this movie deserves particular note. There is no all-encompassing mother tongue throughout the film; Russian characters speak mostly Russian, the Germans German, and the French French, but unlike in many such films, it’s clear they took great care to make sure the dialogue and language used by each person is common, native, and local. It might seem insignificant, but attention to such fine touches is often the fine deciding line between a pretty good movie and a truly great one.
There are a number of ways the film’s resolution can be interpreted, and some will surely think the movie overplays its hand just a bit when we finally find out why the characters are addressing the camera directly. But it is only the best art that can inspire such debate in us to begin with, and for that alone Paradise is easily one of the most unique, best-made, and most intriguing movies to come out in 2017 so far. It provides us with a worthy reminder than, far more often than not, the deciding moments of our lives are the ones we don’t expect to ever come.