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Riveting Holocaust drama opening up in select cities

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Yuliya Vysotskaya plays Olga

Paradise, a Holocaust drama from Russia, arrives in select Canadian theatres on Nov. 17, more than a year after winning a major prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Its high profile on the festival circuit ultimately led to a low-key release, but it is still a major work that’s tough and unsettling, and ultimately rewarding. Director Andrei Konchalovsky (known for the Hollywood action film Tango & Cash) finds elements of compassion and grace within the horrors of the Holocaust.
The title refers to an idea perpetuated by the Third Reich that the generation of Germans who follow in the regime’s footsteps would create a paradise for the nation. One of the three main characters, SS officer Helmut (played by Christian Clauss), is completely dedicated to fulfilling that dream.

But he begins to ponder the fate of his country, after he rises through the ranks as overseer at a concentration camp. There, he discovers that a woman from his past, Olga (played by Yuliya Vysotskaya), is among his prisoners.

When we first meet Olga, she has joined a French resistance group and is sheltering two Jewish children. Arrested by the Gestapo soon after, she tries to seduce the stern French investigator, Jules (played by Philippe Duquesne), who is unapologetic about his ties to the Nazi party.

Paradise centres on the experience of these three characters, as the war trudges on and sudden decisions and unexpected developments shift their fates.

Konchalovsky, working with cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov, shot the story in an austere, sometimes muddy black and white that recalls the film stock of a drama from the 1960s or ’70s.
The period-specific esthetic plants us more palpably within the setting. Some of the murkier tones in the picture, especially during scenes set within crowded barracks and the stuffy warehouse where Olga works, make one almost smell the vile stench of the concentration camp.

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Meanwhile, placed between the three perspectives are testimonials from Olga, Helmut and Jules. In these scenes, the characters sit in a bare, white room and narrate their experiences to the audience.

Some may be disturbed by the amount of time Konchalovsky and co-writer Elena Kiseleva spend humanizing Helmut, although the character eventually harbours doubts about the goals of the Nazi leadership. Clauss has the difficult task of making us sympathize with a monster and, to an extent, he succeeds.

Initially, these interviews seemed like a cheat, a way to tell us the feelings of the characters through ponderous exposition. However, these first-person accounts soon reveal layers of unexpected insight. The stillness of the scenes also allows the audience to witness the remarkably expressive faces of the lead actors.

During the interviews, there are sudden jump cuts in the editing and occasional scratches of dirt on the image. This exposes the testimony’s wear and tear over time, and makes one question the objective truth of the image.

Even through a 131-minute run time, the drama rarely feels ponderous. Strange coincidences and abrupt shifts in point of view ensure that Paradise is never predictable.

Konchalovsky’s film may be challenging for some, due to the severity of the subject matter. But it is also compelling and benefits from searing performances. Its startling conclusion both enhances the themes of the film and gives the audience a different perspective on the situations and dialogue that preceded it.