Friday, December 23, 2016

199. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky’s Russian film “Ray” (Paradise) (2016) (Russia): A very well-made and intelligent Holocaust film built on an outstanding original screenplay

“ A real director is not a director that makes films but who understands people. Or, in any case, tries to understand them because understanding people is, of course, impossible”–Andrei Konchalovsky (quote from his official website)

When Andrei Konchalovsky is in his elements, he can be amazing.  His latest work Paradise is one of his best works, carefully crafted and entertaining for attentive and astute viewers, a film in which difficult questions beyond the obvious horrors of the Holocaust are placed and answered by characters that we can possibly associate in our contemporary daily life.

Konchalovsky is not a filmmaker to be ignored or scoffed at—he studied cinema with Andrei Tarkovsky. The two classmates went on to be co-scriptwriters of Tarkovsky’s first three films The Steamroller and The Violin (1961), Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublyev (1966).  Tarkovsky made a film The First Day (1979), totally based on Konchalovsky’s script, which ran into problems with political censors of the day and was hidden (and now believed to be lost) but not actually destroyed as Tarkovsky publicly claimed. A well-known admirer of Akira Kurosawa, Konchalovsky got the nod of the Japanese maestro to make the film based on Kurosawa’s original script of Runaway Train, after Kurosawa gave up on the idea to make a film out of it. Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985) was made in USA in English language with major Hollywood actors—a profound film that most viewers dismissed as a mere prison escape film. If one studies Paradise and compares it with Runaway Train, there are interesting parallels between the two films. More on that, later, in this review. According to IMDB, Paradise was also partially shot in USA.

Interrogation of Olga by Jules, interrupted by a tortured
resistance fighter being dragged to another room for further questioning

What is Paradise all about? Many films have been made on the horrors of the Holocaust that show the brutality and lack of pity for the prisoners by the German Nazi militia. Very few works of cinema have looked at the situation from the point of view of the Germans [a glorious exception being Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler--a film from Germany (1977)] and other nationalities involved closely with the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Paradise is less about the Jews that perished and more about the mindset and self-evaluation of three distinct fictional personalities carved out of the Russians, the Germans and the French communities by co-scriptwriters Elena Kiseleva and Andrei Konchalovsky on their second feature film together.  Their first collaboration The Postman’s White Nights (2014) and their second Paradise went on to win the Best Director awards at the Venice film festival in 2014 and again in 2016. Their craft was also recognized by the Mar del Plata international film festival by honouring it with the Best Screenplay award.  The magic these two individuals are able to weave are reminiscent of the Kieslowski and Piesiewicz collaboration in the evening of the famous Polish director’s career.

Kiselava and Konchalovsky, being Russians, built the tale around Olga, a Russian √©migr√© in Paris, an aristocrat, and an editor of the Vogue fashion magazine. The Nazi Germany had occupied Paris and Olga is close to the French resistance and hides two Jewish kids only to be arrested for the good deed. The co-scriptwriters then create Jules, a French upper middle class “collaborator,” a senior police official, who serves the Nazis by identifying the members of the French resistance using torture and sending off Jews to concentration camps while leading a comfortable life with his wife and son. Finally,  the scriptwriter duo sculpt a well-read, well-appointed  German aristocrat named Helmut, who admires the Russian works of Chekov and who had once contemplated doing a thesis on the Russian writer, and yet surprisingly believes in Aryan superiority concepts of Hitler and Himmler.

The comfortable family world of Jules in Paris

The amazing script also sculpts the contradictions in the three well-to-do characters.  The attractive Olga (Yulia Vysotskaya, wife of director Konchalovsky), who is not a Jewess, offers sex to Jules, her interrogator to avoid torture and free her friends in the Resistance. Jules (Phillipe Duquesne) who has no compunction in torturing his own countrymen lives with his wife and son as respectable Parisian family man. Helmut, (Christian Clauss/Kristian Klauss) who believes in the extermination of Jews, saves many from being sent to the concentration camps if they were only a quarter Jew by their family tree and would shoot German officers to death if found to be corrupt. The lives and death of the fascinating trio intersect as the film progresses. Olga could have escaped and lived with a man, who she once knew as a benign cultured person and unfortunately had transformed into an evil man. She chooses not to escape death by helping another live in her place.

Helmut (back to the camera) is recruited by Himmler (looking out of the window)
because of Helmut's perfect Aryan credentials, with Hitler's bust
between them--a shot reminiscent of  Syberberg's film
Hitler--a film from Germany (1977) 

Add to the interesting trio of characters developed by the scriptwriters, an interrogation of the trio, each separately done, as if they themselves are inmates of the concentration camps wearing prisoner outfits by an interrogator you never see.  Yes, Olga was an inmate. But the other two were not inmates but safe outsiders. These interrogations are intelligently spliced within the films main narrative. Jules is shown making statements to his interrogator after the film shows he is killed. Only the interesting end scene put all what has preceded in the film in full perspective.  That is when you realize how different and creative the script and direction of Paradise is compared to other popular Holocaust films such as Schindler’s List and Son of Saul. The master stroke of Paradise is that the interrogator is only heard on screen, never discussed beyond that for obvious reasons.

Olga in the concentration camp fighting for a personal bar of soap
...and Olga (extreme right) enjoying her soup after recovering
 the shoes of a dead inmate to cover her bare feet

Olga and Helmut--reality and cinema--enjoying a brief interlude
of comfort and love

Konchalovsky and Kiseleva provide two parallel ways for the viewer to evaluate the film. One is the obvious actions of the trio and the resulting feelings for the viewer. The second is the self assessment of the trio of their actions. The self appraisal transcends the obvious actions and therefore provides the viewer an opportunity to contemplate the power of good cinema over the conventional film narrative. In a larger context, the film assesses the role of three nations in the world war and the complex attitudes of individuals to the Holocaust.

Konchalovsky, either intentionally or unintentionally, has developed the tale of Paradise on the basic structure of his earlier Runaway Train. In Runaway Train, there were two male escapees (Manny/Jon Voight and Buck/Eric Roberts) and one unwitting female passenger (Sara/de Mornay). The first two were convicts, while the innocent third was on the train by happenstance. In Paradise, two men and a woman are being interrogated.  The two men have committed war crimes of different hues, while the woman is essentially a good individual who helped two Jewish children hide from the Nazis initially and helps two Jewish children and their mother at the end of the film. In Runaway Train, the relentless warden does not dispense justice but gets his moral due. In Paradise, the mysterious interrogator dispenses justice.

The title Paradise is very interesting as nothing in the film except for the finale has any relevance to the word. What happens in the film is far from any concept of paradise. Is it the idyllic Aryan dream that Helmut believed in that title refers to? Only the last few minutes of the film reveal Konchalovsky’s key to understanding the film and its purpose to the full extent. Konchalovsky, like Tarkovsky, is deeply religious and influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no overt religious symbol in the entire film and yet it is a religious film. The end of the film gives the truer meaning of the title. That is the capability of Konchalovsky who made Jon Voight’s final posture in Runaway Train atop the hurtling train engine unmistakably religious without a word spoken in the film that was religious. You learn a lot when you have to bypass censors in Stalinist Russia that Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky endured.

There is another common strand between Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky.  Both were born into aristocratic families that gave importance to literature. Tarkovsky’s father was a poet. Konchalovsky’s family (the Mikhlakovs) can be traced back to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Andrei Konchalovsky is the half bother of another important Russian filmmaker, Nikita Mikhalkov.
Perhaps this element of aristocracy has something to do with Konchalovsky’s interest in Chekov and Turgenev, rather than Dostoevesky or Tolstoy. Two of Konchalovsky’s previous films are adaptations of the former pair—Uncle Vanya and The Nest of the Gentry. Helmut’s character in Paradise, who loves Russian literature, refers more than once to Chekov rather than Dostoevesky or Tolstoy.

One would be intrigued by the choice of black and white and the Academy format aspect ratio of 11:8 used in Paradise. These concepts, the static camera placement during interviews and the recurring suggestion of film rolls running out has been obviously introduced to give the feeling of an interrogation where those interviewed have to tell the truth often from their own volition. All that makes sense, if the viewer is patient right up to the end and all what had preceded up to that point falls into place.  And what an ending!

Olga and the two Jewish kids in the concentration camps--
a throwback to the two kids
she tried to save earlier that got her into her current plight

Paradise is definitely one of the most intelligent films made in 2016 with a remarkable screenplay and three lead actors chosen carefully from three countries: Russia, Germany and France, to provide veracity few directors care to indulge in these days.

P.S. Paradise is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985) was reviewed earlier on this blog and is one of the author’s top 100 films. This film, for those interested in Christian theology, provides an interesting insight on the Russian Orthodox Church's view on the concept of purgatory. In that context, note the hair growth on the recently shaven head of the lead actress--a detail that says a lot about the filmmakers. Mr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers