Turning the Holocaust into filmic material forces one to confront the never-ending debate about the responsibilities and limitations of cinema when it comes to depicting historical atrocities. In 1961 Jacques Rivette wrote a brutal review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, criticising the way the Italian director had shown the death of an inmate through a tracking shot which called attention to her dead hand. The review did not declare the Holocaust off-limits to artists, but warned against the danger of fetishizing a horror as unthinkable as the Shoah’s.
A few decades after Rivette’s review, Andrei Konchalovsky arrives at Venice’s 73rd International Film Festival to present Paradise, a moving portrait of the horrors of the Holocaust that is both visually stunning and yet does not aestheticize the Shoah.
Conceived in a way that mirrors a chamber play, Paradise concentrates on the way the Holocaust changes the lives of Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian aristocrat imprisoned for hiding Jewish kids in Nazi-occupied Paris, Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a French-Nazi collaborator who promises not to execute Olga in exchange for sexual favours, and Helmut (Christian Clauß), an SS officer and a former lover of Olga’s who tries to set her free from the concentration camp she is eventually sent to.
Konchalovsky does not depict the Holocaust using the crowded, large-scale violence scenes which had formed the repertoire of other works on the Shoah (arguably the most notable case being Schindler’s List) nor does he take the viewer straight into the lager’s hell the way László Nemes did with his magnificent and revolutionary Son of Saul. Yet he depicts the Shoah in a way that is no less unsettling and thought-provoking. He juxtaposes the idyllic paradises which the three characters long for with the horrors of the Holocaust, so that the full scale of the Shoah’s terror is not depicted through its explicit visual representation but through the way it gradually shatters the characters’ dreams.
Like Son of Saul, Paradise uses a 4:3 screen format, but unlike Nemes’s work, the camera stands still and does not follow the characters around the camp. Konchalovsky’s film opens, ends and is staggered with three monologues which the characters give sitting in front of the camera. It is a brilliant narrative device through which Olga, Helmut and Jules can speak of their lives before and after the war broke out and thus open up to the viewer, and it strengthens the empathy the audience feels for their stories.
Alexander Simonov’s mesmerising photography mimics the aesthetic of the black and white movies of the forties, and the attention to the geometry, symmetries and lights one perceives in each scene makes for some visually spectacular shots. Even so, Paradise never quite turns into a beautiful and yet somewhat cold painting, nor does Konchalovsky’s directing slips into the gratuitous fetishisation of the Shoah’s horror Rivette saw in Pontecorvo’s Kapò. Brilliantly photographed, written and directed, Paradise manages to depict the Holocaust in a way that both moves the audience and honours the victims of an unthinkable tragedy.