B&W, 1962, 92m.
Directed by Zbynek Brynych
Zdeněk Stěpánek, Ilja Prachar, Jindřich Narenta, Jirí Vrstála, Čestmír Řanda
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL)
Though it wasn't much of a topic on movie screens in the years immediately after World War II, the treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis became a tremendous dramatic focus in the 1960s both in America (especially after The Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg) and Europe (including Andrzej Wadja's Samson). Interestingly, Czechoslovakia was one of the primary cinematic dramatists of this recent atrocity in films like Jiří Weiss' Romeo, Juliet and Darkness and Jan Němec's Diamonds of the Night; however, that latter film's screenwriter, Arnost Lustig, translated his own personal experiences at the unusual Terezin Ghetto, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans, into the earlier Transport from Paradise, in which Jews are held in increasingly dire conditions in what amounted to an impoverished way station for many on the way to Auschwitz.
However, rather than a straightforward depiction of life under the Nazis, Transport from Paradise also has an interesting angle on the creative nature of the human spirit, including a fascinating glimpse of a fake documentary commissioned by the propaganda machine to depict the neighborhood as a happy, humane dwelling place. In fact, with an impending Red Cross visit sending said machine into overdrive, General Knecht (Narenta) and the essential overseer of the town, David Loewenbach (Stěpánek), shuffling numbers and paperwork to determine who should get shipped out to certain doom in time for the inspection. However, Loewenbach ultimately has no intention of carrying through the death orders, which carries its own share of retribution and his replacement by the complicit Marmulstaub (Randa). The tension between facade and reality continues to grow until the full horror of the situation becomes all too obvious.
Though comparatively subtle in its approach, Transport from Paradise remains an intense and harrowing experience through the suggestions conveyed in its performances and the knowledge viewers themselves bring to the story, filling in the chilling blanks when a man is doing something as simple as reading off an itemized list of passengers. The performances are also effective without being showy, delivering mordant humor without tipping the balance of the story too far out of orbit.
Barely released in America almost five years after its Czech premiere, Transport from Paradise is another terrific discovery making its English-subtitled DVD debut courtesy of UK label Second Run. Their astonishing track record with Eastern European cinema already speaks for itself, and this is another jewel in their digital crown. The film sports a gritty look but looks solid throughout; whether it's a tad oversharpened is questionable but this is definitely an impressive standard def presentation with excellent gray scale throughout and rich, atmospheric black levels. The optional English subtitles are up to their usual high standards, too. The sole extra is a booklet that's actually essential reading as playwright Roy Kift goes into astonishing depth about the real Theresienstadt, including some galvanizing anecdotes about the real notable inhabitants and the betrayals that befell them.
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Reviewed on March 18, 2014.