Transport from Paradise (1962) is a vivid look at life in a Czech Ghetto, and an account of the life of Arnost Lustig who spent time at Terezinstadt camp-ghetto before being sent to Auschwitz. Pairing the atrocious treatment of the Jews with scenes from Nazi propaganda films, we see how the world was deceived as to the extent of the Jews’ suffering, in the documentaries released by the Hitler regime to show, to a Red Cross delegation, falsified images of ‘happy camp life’. The film also celebrates the culture that was allowed to blossom in Terezinstadt – a camp-ghetto where music, dance and drama was produced – and the empowerment this gave to its Jewish Population.
The film’s narrative does not begin with a depressing image of Ghetto life, which might be expected given the subject-matter. Instead we are introduced to the film crew shooting the material designed to mislead the Red Cross, as Jews announce to a movie camera how happy they are. However, behind this façade (which includes a surprisingly uplifting Jazzy soundtrack) an atmosphere of fear and panic prevails, with shots of towering suitcases, anti-Nazi propaganda hidden in plain sight and people constantly questioning each other about whether transportation is planned. In this opening sequence the film seeks to fool its audience just as the Nazis sought to fool the Red Cross.
A credit to this film is its ability to show a wide variety of believable and challenging characters. The evil of the Nazi Officers is frustrating and heart-breaking without ever tipping into melodrama. Brynych shows that the Nazi inability to see the Jews as equally human is the main root of their evil: as they count down the list of those destined for the gas chambers they do not bat an eyelid, but react as if merely counting off sheep for the slaughter. Some officials hold real contempt for the Jews: some appear merely indifferent and others appear just to enjoy humiliating them. However, there are also characters who seem to have a conscience: a young soldier named Warner shows mercy to many of the Jews and allows them to escape torture. However, the indifference of the soldiers is a haunting and recurrent theme. The words of a leading Ghetto official that “we’re all crazy here” seem the only possible explanation.
More than anything, Brynych seems to focus on what people will do in extreme situations: the Nazis are not automatically evil, the Jews not automatically victims. Cultural activities, such as the music played by young men, seem metaphors for hope, embodied more obviously by a young couple who, despite the overpowering atmosphere of terror, make plans for the future as if they, at least, nurse the belief that one day they might again be free.
However, Brynych doesn’t sugar over the real tragedy that Transport from Paradise represents. The train headed for Auschwitz carries a reminder of the destruction that has already been achieved by the Nazis. In a final act of humiliation Brynych shows a line of Jews state what profession they did “before”, and as we hear a list of important and high-ranking positions, there is no escaping the extent of what the Nazis destroyed. Towards the ending of this film – so much about Jews being led to death like lambs to the slaughter – the words ‘never again like sheep’ resonate, and the urgency and drama attached to the line make it seem a political statement.
Transportation from Paradise has as much relevance as when first released in 1962. One of the greatest questions we face when looking at the Holocaust is understanding how it was allowed to happen, along with the lingering fear that it could happen again. This beautifully rendered film permits a new audience to bear witness to one of the world’s most prolific genocides. This story of the Terezin Ghetto holds a familiar yet uniquely chilling message about tyranny: one that should always be remembered.
Transport from Paradise (Brynych, 1962) is available from Second Run DVD at £12.99.