Transport from Paradise (Transport z ráje) Review
The 1962 Czech film Transport from Paradise (Transport z ráje) is not the easiest one to prepare for even as a somewhat educated viewer. Preconceived notions on the Holocaust, the Jewish ghettoes in Czechoslovakia and cinematic treatments of such provide minimal help. The movie's writer Arnošt Lustig would also go on to script another Czech New Wave entry called Diamonds of the Night, but even that brilliant film (already released by Second Run and reviewed on this site) does surprisingly little to ready us for such a darkly devastating work of comedy and tragedy like this. It actually becomes difficult at times to decide whether certain occurrences are intended to be funny or sad. Then we realize one informs the other, and the answer is that both are being teased on purpose.
Director Zbyněk Brynych, probably best known for The Fifth Horseman is Fear, begins Transport from Paradise with an extensive, theatrical film-within-a-film routine that initially makes little sense to the uninitiated. Only after we've become a bit acclimated to the film's setting in the Terezin Ghetto, easily the most fake, false and thus "cinematic" of Nazi purgatories, does any of it begin to be understood. One of the inmates at Theresienstadt (its German name) was Kurt Gerron, an actor and director whose credits included a major role in von Sternberg's The Blue Angel and the distinction of having been the first person to sing "Mack the Knife" in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. During his time there, Gerron was pressured into making a movie showing the joys of Terezin by Josef Goebbels. The title given to it would be translated as The Führer Donates a City to the Jews. Beyond that, as the film begins, the Red Cross is coming and the Nazis are determined to make Theresienstadt be seen as a resort destination for the Jews.
The sheer absurdity of all of this, to anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of the Holocaust, almost requires us to laugh even as we shudder at the realities of the situation. It's just too much to absorb at times. Anyone and everyone in possession of years of hindsight can plainly see how ridiculous everything going on was, yet the inherent tragedy of Terezin acting as a mere extended layover before Auschwitz or some other death camp provides a horrifically macabre twist to the ordeal. And, as playwright Roy Kift illuminates in his booklet essay for this release, the whole idea of what the Nazis were doing at this time was so unthinkable as to make some of those tragically horrible farces seem more or less plausible, at least in comparison to the reality that was occurring.
The film is bravely unafraid to play up this distinction, just twenty or so years after the fact. Such an elaborate sequence of terror being allowed to become comedic, even in as blackly a manner as this, for catharsis and truth telling is remarkable. It's as though Transport from Paradise repurposes elements of the tragedy for humorous effect. That Lustig was the writer certainly makes a difference. Not only had he experienced Terezin firsthand but he was also a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This is absolutely not a film in the same tone of Diamonds of the Night. The latter is probably the better of the two, but it's Transport which stuns us in a stronger, wholly unexpected way.
To be clear, Transport from Paradise is without a doubt a deeply unsettling affair. It's just that the audacity perhaps outshines the impact. One inhabitant after another is forced to leave the Terezin ghetto by train for destinations which serve as an unknown. The fact that we know these are likely death sentences only enhances the tragedy. The comedy inherent in much of the actions on screen serves to disrupt and postpone a few of the tears. But nothing really alleviates the impact. We're left, voluntarily or not, with one of the more fucked-up malignancies of the Holocaust - where the Nazis infected their victims' minds prior to destroying their bodies.
Giving the film a brilliantly striking cover, Second Run bring Transport to Paradise to DVD with a region-free PAL disc.
The 1.33:1 image easily registers below the normal Second Run standard but still never approaches being unwatchable. There's a lack of strong detail and abundance of grain here. Damage is persistent. Still, the transfer itself seems fine and nothing deters too prominently from the viewing experience.
A mono audio track contains both Czech and German. It's a bit weak but never reaches the point of distraction. We're offered English language subtitles that appear cleanly and minus obvious error.
The only supplement for this release is a 20-page booklet which has a pretty great essay by playwright Roy Kift. It's a lengthy piece which gives a good deal of background on the Terezin Ghetto, about which Kift has written two plays. The essay itself is one of the stronger ones to be found in Second Run's typically worthwhile inserts.