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A tragic command performance

Times Staff Writer

MALCOLM Clarke and Stuart Sender’s “Prisoner of Paradise” opens with vintage documentary images depicting an idyllic, creative community living in a sprawling 18th century structure that looks to be as vast as Versailles. They are scenes from “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City” -- arguably the most infamous film made in the history of the cinema (except for Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”).

Produced in 1944 as propaganda for such neutral European nations as Sweden and Switzerland, “The Fuehrer” was designed to suggest that the 40,000 to 50,000 Jews forced to live at Theresienstadt, a 1790 garrison constructed to protect nearby Prague, enjoyed a paradise-like existence. In reality, many were starving and dying of typhus as well as regularly being transported to Auschwitz. As it turned out, it was never shown by the Nazis. The man forced to direct this film, Kurt Gerron, is the subject of “Prisoner,” a compelling, tragically ironic documentary.

A decorated World War I veteran and a Jew, Gerron gave up medicine to become one of Berlin’s most popular performers, first in cabaret, where he made fun of the emerging Nazis, then on the stage and screen -- in 1927 alone he appeared in 27 films. He reached his zenith as the third lead in “The Blue Angel,” as Mack the Knife in the original stage production of “The Threepenny Opera” and as a successful film director. Finally driven to escape the Third Reich, he continued performing and directing in Paris and then in Holland, where the Nazis finally caught up with him. Among various opportunities to escape, he turned down tickets to Hollywood because they weren’t first class. When at last he did try to get out of Holland, it was too late.

Along with archival footage, most of it fresh, “Prisoner of Paradise” includes the insights of a remarkable number of friends and colleagues who remember Gerron with affection, respect and much frustration for his procrastination. A woman, who as a child in Theresienstadt watched him board the train for Auschwitz, recalls that “he didn’t look right or left. He was going like a king.”

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“Prisoner of Paradise,” part of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Academy/Contemporary Documentaries series, will be preceded Wednesday by a screening of “Last Dance,” a documentary on a stormy collaboration between the dance company Pilobolus and author-illustrator Maurice Sendak.

More Chaplin

When Charlie Chaplin made “Monsieur Verdoux” in 1947, reportedly from an idea from Orson Welles, it was Chaplin’s belief that the ruthlessness of his dapper French ultra-bourgeois Bluebeard, modeled on the infamous Landru, mirrored the values of the world in which Verdoux struggled to survive. Set in the depths of the Depression, the film (screening Friday as part of UCLA’s Charlie Chaplin series) is a withering attack on the evils of capitalism -- not exactly what postwar audiences wanted to hear, especially with the Cold War warming up. Not helping matters was that Chaplin was caught up in a sensational paternity trial at the time.

Today, however, the pitch-dark satire of “Monsieur Verdoux” seems timelier than ever. It’s also the film in which Chaplin bids farewell to his beloved Tramp. Always impeccably groomed, Chaplin’s silver-haired Henri Verdoux is a devoted paterfamilias wiped out in the 1929 crash. He wouldn’t dream of stepping on a caterpillar, yet he systematically marries --bigamously -- and murders a series of women for their money. (Escaping his clutches hilariously by sheer dint of vulgarity is Martha Raye.) Fearlessly, Chaplin moves back and forth between social comment and romanticism.

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“The Pilgrim” is evidence that even early in his career Chaplin revealed an acute social consciousness, growing out of his own dire childhood. In “The Pilgrim,” notable for its exquisite miming and humor, Chaplin plays an escaped convict posing as a minister.

“City Lights” remains a work of simplicity and charm, although it’s difficult to agree with those who consider it Chaplin’s masterpiece. “Modern Times,” for example, has the same grace and poignancy but considerably more substance. Chaplin found himself in agreement with a young critic who found the film verging on the sentimental. Yet it’s hard to disagree with Chaplin’s own reappraisal of that critic’s reaction: “Had I known what I do now,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I would have told him the so-called realism is often artificial, phony, prosaic and dull, and that it is not reality that matters in a film but what the imagination can make of it.”

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Screenings

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UCLA Film and Television Archive

Academy/Contemporary Documentaries series: “Last Dance,” Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., followed by “Prisoner of Paradise”

Charlie Chaplin, Part II:

“Monsieur Verdoux,” Friday, 7:30 p.m. “The Pilgrim,” Saturday, 7:30 p.m., followed by “City Lights”

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Where: James Bridges Theater, Melnitz Hall, UCLA campus, Westwood

Info: (310) 206-FILM


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