The word “paradise” usually has nothing but positive associations, but to reach a Heavenly paradise, you necessarily need to die first, whereas instituting a utopian paradise on earth invariably involves mass murder and oppression. The connection between death and idyllic perfection comes through loud and clear in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Jules is a comfortable but far from compassionate middle-class French police officer collaborating with Vichy and the National Socialists. Helmut is a young German nobleman who takes pride in his status, even though it is a source of insecurity among his working-class SS colleagues. Both men will use their positions to sexually exploit Olga, an elegant Russian émigré arrested for sheltering Jewish children. Each will discuss their wartime experiences from a position of definitive hindsight. That means they are dead, as becomes evident when the resistance assassinates Jules during the first act. However, you cannot say they share the same ultimate fates.
In each case, the imprisoned Olga welcomed her jailer’s attention, as a means of survival. The outlook for her is especially desperate when she reaches the concentration camp Helmut is inspecting. Konchalovsky rather sparingly depicts the horrors of death camp life, but he periodically slaps us with a brutally intense episode of cruelty. Therefore, we can plainly understand why it is almost a godsend when Olga reunites with Helmut, a former summer fling, who became ridiculously enraptured with her. In the intervening years, Helmut drunk deeply of National Socialism, becoming a hardcore ideologue and anti-Semite. Yet, he himself readily admits, had he been born in Russia, he would have been a Communist. Indeed, he quite respects their fanaticism and statism, but those are not the terms he would use.
Konchalovsky’s strategy to combine Nuremberg-esque interview segments with dramatic sequences will be divisive, but it all pays off in the final scene. Even viewers who do not fully buy into Konchalovsky’s style and structure will concede the power of Aleksandr Simonov’s frighteningly beautiful black-and-white cinematography. Like Son of Saul, Paradise is shot in the box-like Academy ration, but every frame is still visually arresting.
Julia Vysotskaya (Konchalovsky’s accomplished wife) is also ferociously heartbreaking as Olga. It is an unflinching, morally complex portrayal of suffering and survival, but Konchalovsky only invites us to empathize, not to judge. Philippe Duquesne is fine as Jules, but he never stretches our conception of the corrupt French copper. In contrast, Christian Clauß is a chilling true believer, but he also develops disturbingly dysfunctional yet problematically human chemistry with Vysotskaya’s Olga.