Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Both Vysotskaya and Clauß deliver extraordinary performances in this thoughtful and challenging film."

One of the notable trends in independent filmmaking over the past few years has been an increasing tendency to approach big subjects through small, personal stories. Paradise deals with the Second World War, the Nazi occupation of France and the concentration camps, but there are never more than 20 people onscreen at a time. Three characters appear in interview, addressing an unknown authority. As they reflect on their experiences, we see how their fates were intertwined and how the things they saw carried them in different moral directions.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is the simplest of the characters, a French collaborator whom, it emerges, has a particular reason to be afraid for his family which has perhaps prompted him to take the course he has. Nevertheless, he seems to relish the opportunity to be cruel, and when he captures Russian aristocrat Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya), who has been arrested for hiding Jewish children, he becomes sexually threatening. To her, though, he's a footnote in a much bigger story as she is sent to a concentration camp where the fight for democracy and civility gives way to a fight simply to stay alive. Gone are the carefree days of the early Thirties when, on holiday, she once attracted the attention of Helmut (Christian Clauß), a naif, almost sweet young man who comes into the orbit of Heinrich Himmler (Viktor Sukhorukov) and finds himself rising in the ranks of the SS. Sent to investigate alleged corruption in a number of camps, Helmut finds Olga again, but now they are not only in different situations, they are very different people. Has the war changed them, or was the potential for this always there, inside?

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Both Vysotskaya and Clauß deliver extraordinary performances in this thoughtful and challenging film. Relatively little direct attention is paid to the horrors of the Holocaust - the audience will already be familiar with them, and the brief glimpses we do get are more powerful for their scarcity, producing acute distress rather than a dull ache that might be tuned out. Instead, the film concentrates on the psychological impact of what the different characters go through, and this is a lot more complex, surprising and disturbing than you might expect.

The film's power stems partly from the context of its release. A speech about the future of the Nazi dream - creating the 'paradise' of the title, when everyone deemed not good enough has been eliminated - is very much part of the story and doesn't feel like pasted-in political comment, but in today's fractured political landscape it's chilling in a way that it would not have been a decade ago. Director Andrei Konchalovskiy is concerned in part with how people come to think like this, and Helmut's journey is fascinating to watch, full of moments which are easy to misinterpret until one sees them again in retrospect. As he watches an old friend gradually break down under the strain, we are invited to think about the impact of events on perpetrators as well as victims, and to consider the ways in which delusion can increase in importance, rather than shattering, as events spiral further out of control.

Olga's experience is one that viewers are more likely to feel comfortable relating to, but it's still not straightforward, and is complicated by guilt, awareness of her privilege and awareness of her willingness to let go of almost everything she values when the pressure is really on. As she comes to pity Helmut, she struggles to understand herself and to see a future for either of them. Konchalovskiy counterpoints the mechanical processes of mass murder with the societal wound that develops as a result. A camp commander complaining that he is under-resourced shows Helmut what look like real photos of human bodies stacked up in carts. We are left to wonder what each character is really feeling when looking at them, and what that says about our own emotional and cognitive biases.

Paradise is beautifully shot in grainy black and white, giving way to smoother, brighter images only in those brief romantic memories of the time before the madness began. It's interestingly framed, with conversations glimpsed through doorways so that sometimes one of the speakers is offscreen, emphasising the dissonance involved. More disturbing than the grime of the camp barracks is the ordinariness of the meeting rooms and offices where all this brutality is managed. They make it impossible to view this as something remote. Konchalovskiy's tale captures the banality of evil, presents it as contemporary, as human.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2017
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A Russian member of the French resistance, a collaborator and a naive SS officer collide with tragic consequences.

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Writer: Elena Kiseleva, Andrey Konchalovskiy

Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Philippe Duquesne, Viktor Sukhorukov

Year: 2016

Runtime: 131 minutes

Country: Russia


Glasgow 2017

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