“There’s no heaven without hell,” offers gas chamber commandant Krauze (Peter Kurth).
Apparently, the ultimate goal of Hitler’s master plan for his master race was to achieve paradise on Earth.
Much of the world’s population believes that life’s actions will be held to account when gatekeeper St. Peter passes judgement for eternal bliss or purgatory.
Even during monstrous times, the very young, innocent children must be protected in hopes that their generation will arise above the calamities of their elders and—somehow—find the elixir of life that will—finally—let everyone co-exist in peace and harmony.
All of these daunting themes form the bedrock of Andrey Konchalovsky’s (along with co-writer Elena Kiseleva) magnificently constructed chronicle of life and death in Gestapo-occupied Paris and death without life in an SS-ruled concentration camp.
A key component in the four narrative pillars and scenarios is the great divide between nobility and the rest of us. This gives the film a universal platform that transcends the era under the microscope, making it applicable to violent conflicts since the very first time one village decided it was superior to another then moved full-steam ahead with necessary “cleansing” of their inferiors.
At first, the black-and-white production (so appropriate on many planes) seems very familiar: Olga, an aristocratic Russian (Yuliya Vysotskaya) and resistance member in Paris has been arrested by French police—apparently during the act of helping two Jewish boys escape the clutches of the Gestapo and live to grow up in a safer, more tolerant country.
Yet before you can say, “narrative technique” the first of a long series of one-way interviews (the investigator is never seen) with the film’s principal players decked out in prison-grey uniforms, seamlessly provides insights and much-needed backstory to the cinematic events unfolding in more typical style in between. (Somewhat like a director’s cut with “commentary” turned on.)
It’s a bit of a gamble, given the declining attention span of so many in this age of social media banalities or trying to express something profound in 140 characters or less. But those with patience and the ability to realize that so many important things are well worth waiting for will be mightily rewarded by sitting through the entire voyage to hell and back.
As the chief of police—with no Gestapo ties, he protests to his doubtful wife on their well-appointed country estate—Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is simultaneously the model of decorum and devoted father (spending precious time with his son as they survey the humongous anthill that will incongruously become a headstone), critic of his underling’s less than satisfactory torture skills/results (Why go to all of the trouble breaking a knee if no confession is produced?), and connoisseur of wine (rank has its privileges even in wartime), women (why not sleep with prisoners to ease their sentence?) and song.
Vrai German nobleman and Brahms devotee Helmut (newcomer Christian Clauss) recognizes his duty in supporting the Third Reich’s agenda to the point of selling off the family mansion then steadily moving up the ranks of the SS until receiving a very special commission from Heinrich Himmler (Viktor Sukhorukov) during a private audience to end the “corruption by the inmates and their keepers alike” in the concentration camps.
Long-time friend of Helmut, Dietrich (George Lenz) ends up in the same camp as his best bud’s current “clean-up” assignment. It’s one of many coincidences that can readily be forgiven since none of them really strain credibility, rather they strengthen the themes. He serves as the super Aryan’s confidante (both were schoolmates, debating the merits of Chekhov into the wee hours, only to find his one-time fiancée, Dunya Efros a recent visitor to the gas chamber), conscience and—in a rare moment of sexual undertone—unrequited lover.
Commandant Krauze is the stereotypical entitlement officer whose overweight girth is testament to living damned life large: drinking schnapps on the job, stealing the prime spoils from his prisoners (Why not? They’re going to die anyway), leaving his subalterns to argue over the less valuable items. He is also a self-proclaimed expert at deciding who amongst the daily influx of herded-up scum might be of some possible use to Hitler’s dream world and those who had best be gassed ASAP. Alas, the crematoria aren’t able to handle the volume (yet what does that say about German superiority?).
Further coincidences find the two “saved” boys in the camp, along with Olga as well as the revelation that she and Helmut had had a fling in 1933 Italy that ultimately led nowhere. (She finally married the Prince in their holiday party—craftily revealed in Helmut’s home movie collection, largely because he looked so helpless playing hide-and-seek.)
Of course, history has told us the outcome of Hitler’s fanatical, fantastical vision, but Konchalovsky has done the world a further favour (for those who can begin to understand the subtext of his intention) by raising the spectre that Third Reich II could be playing in a theatre of war sooner than anyone imagines, or at least fuelled by those of us who revel in their superiority over “those people” and are up to the noble task of cleansing the planet once and for all. JWR