Friday, June 29, 2012

Granito and Prisoner of Paradise: film, justice, propaganda

These are two documentaries about (at least in part) filmmaking itself.

I highly recommend Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. The filmmaker, Pamela Yates, tells the story of how footage from her 1983 film, When the Mountains Tremble, came to be part of efforts to obtain justice in Guatemala. (José Efraín Ríos Montt is now on trial there for crimes against humanity and genocide.) It was shown last night on PBS’ POV, and can be watched free online in the US and Canada for the next four months. They’ve also removed their block for this one, so people in other countries can watch both films in English or Spanish! Granito has a simple, humble, inspiring message about artmaking and other contributions to movements to create a better world

Prisoner of Paradise (2003) is a very different film about film. It profiles Kurt Gerron, the successful German-Jewish cabaret performer, actor, and director whose career was destroyed and who was ultimately deported to Theresienstadt – the Nazis’ fake model Jewish city – where just before the end of the war he was conscripted to write and direct a fake documentary presenting the miserable ghetto as a joyous, comfortable place.

I have some problems with the film. Overall, it’s rather workmanlike; there’s really no compelling artistic thread holding it together, and Gerron’s story – bringing together theater, film, comedy, celebrity, artistic careers, truth, community, and propaganda – offers a wealth of artistic raw material. There’s also not enough about Gerron as a person or an artist. The film repeats again and again how central Gerron’s work was to him and his identity, but no sustained treatment of his comedic or directorial vision is provided. Nor is there sufficient contextual information about the Nazis’ attacks on theater and film, and especially on Jewish people working in these fields. (The stories of Gerron and several other Jewish theater and film professionals are, by the way, told in Dead Funny, which I’ve discussed here in the past.) This superficial treatment almost leaves the viewer with the sense that Gerron’s choices were based simply on arrogance and a sense of superiority.

This is compounded by the film’s portrayal of Gerron’s life in Europe before his arrest by the Nazis in the Netherlands. It’s presented as a series of opportunities to escape that were lost due to Gerron’s own decisions, which the film doesn’t consider in any depth. That presentation tends to manipulate the viewer into a sick 20/20-hindsight victim-blaming game – “Why didn’t he get on the ship to the US?!” “Why didn’t he hire a boat in Holland to get him away?!” – which singles Gerron out and holds him responsible for his victimization. While the film is generally sympathetic, I think this lends itself to appalling readings, like this from the Hollywood Reporter review: "[I]t tells a morality tale of a man whose hubris partially led to his downfall and whose willingness to work for his Nazi overseers [!] resulted in one of the most notorious propaganda films of the era."

So, despite the fact that the interviews are definitely worth watching and Gerron’s story should be known, I don’t know if I can fully recommend this one. By all means, though, do see Granito.

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