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Paradise is a Russian-German co-production about the Holocaust, which came into the Glasgow Film Festival winning the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival; it was Russia’s nomination for the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.
In 1942 Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya) was a Russian-emigrant who fought for the French Resistance and was arrested by the French authorities when she’s caught harboring and protecting two Jewish boys. When Oleg is sent to a concentration camp she finds people from her past, including Helmut (Christian Clauss), a high-ranking SS officer she had an affair with in Italy years earlier.
Films about the Holocaust have an illustrious history and Paradise came into the Glasgow Film Festival with a lot of praise: even the coordinators of the festival were hyping the movie and it was applauded by the audience at the end.
Paradise is at its best showing the dehumanizing process within the camps. When one elderly woman dies all the women near her rush around her to steal everything they can off her – from her boots to cigarettes. Inmates are also complicit with their captors – partaking in beating each other so they could avoid receiving similar treatment by the SS. Oleg is taunted and abused by her fellow inmates because they see her as a collaborator. This part of the movie was similar to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist which showed the same type of hardship and desperation.
Paradise‘s other strength is its willingness to show a world of moral grays. Helmut is a committed Nazi who joined the party because he saw it as a way to make Germany great again – yet he is drawn to a Cossack woman which drives him nuts. He tries to protect Oleg using her as a domestic service in a plotline similar to the flashbacks in Sophie’s Choice. The French police officer Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is also shown to be a morally complex figure, someone working with the Nazi occupiers and willing to use torture – yet wants to do good by his family. It all adds to a theme about how people attempt to be good, or at least what they perceive to be good.
Paradise was directed and co-written by Andrei Konchalovsky – a man who has had an incredibly erratic career: his films range from Soviet dramas, American movies like Runaway Train and Tango & Cash and the notorious adaptation of The Nutcracker. With Paradise, Konchalovsky follows in the tradition of Russian cinema, being depressing and arty. The framing device of the movie is Oleg, Helmut and Jules being interviewed and it seemed to be a reason to exposit their background and a way to avoid using a voiceover. It only revived at the end: why this framing device was used – it came across as being arty for the sake of being arty, especially because the rest of the movie was fairly grounded.
Russian cinema can at times be narratively loose and in the end can only appeal to an art-house crowd. Fortunately, Paradise does have a basic narrative through-line and a linear story – even it does require some suspension of disbelief.
Paradise is a hard-hitting film that’s not for the faint-hearted; history lovers will enjoy the little references and nuances. However, compared to other films about Holocaust Paradise is a minor entry.