Issue 56 (2017)

Andrei Konchalovskii. Paradise (Rai, 2016)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2017

At the Venice Film Festival 2016, Andrei Konchalovskii was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Direction of his new feature film Paradise. The film went on to become Russia’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, although it failed to secure a nomination; however, it swept the national film awards for 2016—Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress at both NIKA and Golden Eagle, and the White Elephant from the Russian Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics. In a sense, this unanimity in the various awards is not new, and not even surprising given the modest harvest of Russia’s industry in the Federation’s Year of Cinema.

raiComing two years after The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Andreia Triapitsyna, 2014) that also won a Silver Lion for Best Director, Konchalovskii’s new film is as unpretentious as his earlier, documentary-style film, while the structural complexity raises this film to a new level, even if the composition is contentious amongst critics, especially when compared to the first-person perspective adopted in Lazslo Nemes’s Son of Saul (Saul fia, 2015): “After ‘Son of Saul’s’ immersive first-person camera gave viewers a visceral new point of view on the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, the bar for innovation in depicting what is already a comprehensively filmed passage of history was further raised” (Lodge 2016). Similarly, Jonathan Romney compares the two films in a manner unfavourable to Konchalovskii: “Konchalovsky’s eccentrically-structured film comes across as all the more nebulous and old-fashioned at a time when the uncompromisingly serious Son of Saul has reset the agenda for depicting the Shoah cinematically” (Romney 2016).

raiAdmittedly, compared to Nemes’s film, Paradise offers nothing new on the portrayal of the horrors of the Nazi regime, what this film does achieve is a narrative perspective from the other world. The film centers on three characters: Olga Kamenska (Vysotskaia), a Russian émigré living in Paris as Vogue fashion editor and married to an aristocrat; the aristocratic Helmut (Clauss), a high-ranking German SS Officer dispatched to a concentration camp to uncover corruption at the managerial level; and Jules (Duquesne), a French police officer who collaborates with the German Occupation. Three memories—French, German and Russian—offer a complexity of perspective that interweave the roles of victim and aggressor, but also highlight the belief in ideas that is, in all three stories, diluted with personal ambitions for love and a future. Modeled on Princess Vera Obolensky, called “Vicky”, who joined the Resistance in 1940, was arrested in 1943 for hiding Jewish children and executed in Berlin in 1944, Julia Vysotskaia’s Olga is clearly the most important of the three central characters, and it is she who will be rewarded with a place in the “paradise” of the title in the end..

The events unfold between 1942–1944 and commence with Olga’s arrest for hiding Jewish children. She is to be questioned by Jules, who seems willing to surrender to her sexual advances offered in exchange for a release, but before this can happen he is executed by the Resistance. Without protection, Olga is sent to a concentration camp, where she is reunited with the two boys she had tried to hide and where she makes friends with Roza, a woman with a daughter in Kemerovo. Later she is recognized by SS Officer Helmut, whom she knew back in the 1930s. In those days, she led a carefree life and partied with other aristocrats in Tuscany, where she met her future husband, Prince Kamenski. Helmut helps her survive in the camp, and when the Germans are loosing the war—the time is November 1944, the liberation of Belgrade, as we know from Olga’s overheard radio transmission—he obtains papers for her to leave. Yet Olga gives her papers to Roza, who takes the children; Olga herself perishes in the gas chamber.

raiThe plot that could not be more conventional and unsurprising. Yet what makes this film special is the structure: shot entirely in black and white, the film opens with a scene of arrest as two women are incarcerated in the Fresnes prison near Paris in 1942. Then follows a recording, one might suppose an interview in front of a running film camera that sometimes stalls, sometimes runs to the noise of a 35mm apparatus. Moreover, Konchalovskii incorporates 16mm amateur footage into the film: “Here he works chiaroscuro wonders with what the end credits identify as a combination of 35mm and 16mm stock (projected digitally at Venice), his 4:3 black-and-white images and complex lighting set-ups often harking back to golden-age monochrome cinematography” (Young 2016). Konchalovskii juxtaposes the seemingly documentary footage of the interviews (as we realise later, with people who narrate from the other world) with a range of other visual sources, which has a distracting effect, as Romney has argued: “What takes the edge badly off these sequences, however, is Konchalovsky’s distracting decision to present them like rough celluloid footage, spiked with jump cuts, film grain and overexposure effects” (Romney 2016). At the same time, this playing with footage adds to the narrative stands and authenticates each of these narratives, as does a sophisticated game with photographic images, which we shall return to later.

raiFirst, and in the order in which the narratives are presented in the film, there is a statement given by Jules Michaud, who tells his story: his background, his marriage to Agnes, and walks with son Emile. A flashback to his family life takes us to the morning after the first interview he conducted with Olga at the police station, asking her back for a private dinner the next day—something for which he is prepared to postpone a visit to the circus with his family. Thus a connection between first scene (the women’s arrest) and Jules is established. What emerges only gradually is that the Jules who tells this story to the camera is a dead man. The three characters who will provide testimonies are all speaking from the other world to a camera; the images are projected and are framed. They are all filmed in the same space, the characters dressed in white shirts, and Olga’s head is shaven. The characters offer different perspectives on the events, which they remember with words spoken into the camera which are further underpinned by flashbacks which we, the viewer, have to piece together. Their memory is tainted not by time, but by the degree of culpability for their actions. There is no attempt here of Jules of Helmut to justify themselves; they have acted the way they have done, in good faith, and they have no regret because they have no privilege of hindsight. They are genuine in their statements, testifying to their belief in ideas and in their job and to their disillusionment and disappointment.

Helmut, too, provides his background: his family boasts of a long-standing commitment of service to the country. Yet the family has lost its estate, and Helmut reacts physically against the violence and destruction he witnesses (he is sick; he has tears in his eyes looking at images of dead bodies piled up in the concentration camp; he has visions of being persecuted). Yet even though he is committed to fulfilling the task set by the Führer, he shows compassion for others: he releases a half-Jew who is related to one of his servants; he sends Dietrich, his university friend, to Switzerland when he realizes defeat is close and Dietrich suicidal; and he arranges for Olga to become his cleaner and gets her privileges in the camp.  

raiIndeed, Helmut and Dietrich are a-typical for a standard role of SS Officer: they have both studied Russian literature before the war and know German’s enemy better than other officers. Helmut’s topic for a dissertation he never completed before the war was Anton Chekhov. Yet propaganda has bent their knowledge in a strange manner, which leaves from their fascination with Chekhov only Dietrich’s theft of Kharkov’s library collection, and the memory of Chekhov’s mistress Dunya Efros, who refused to convert to orthodoxy so she could marry Chekhov and thus ended up marrying Chekhov’s lawyer friend Efim Konovitser–and that she perished at the age of 67 in the very same camp where Helmut and Dietrich are based.

Memories are not only evoked through the verbal statements to the camera given from the other world—which is how Olga remembers the happy times in Italy. Helmut recalls the same occasion visually with the help of a 16mm film that he projects in his quarters to remind himself of his first meeting with Olga in 1933. In the verbal commentary that accompanies the images, he recalls his physical attraction to Olga, while she remembers how he wrote letters to her that she never answered and that made her husband jealous. Again, Olga is willing to offer herself to Helmut to secure her release. Similarly, photo-albums serve as documents not so much of personal memory, but as evidence of the horrors of the time: there is the album of the camp that Commander Kraus gives to Helmut; and the album that Dietrich brings along to show life at the front line. The private image of a personal photograph is used to evidence history and war crimes, while personal memory exists only in words, flashbacks and filmed footage—moving images and a flowing narrative. Memory is flux, in motion, and not static; it shows what we take to the other world: the good deeds, the moments of justice, of happiness, of honor.

Identifying with the characters is not an intention of this film, and the assessment of Hollywood Reporter’s critic Neil Young appears a little harsh: “It’s a conceit that always feels more gimmicky than organic, distancing the viewer from the characters, their emotions and their milieu, as well as hindering narrative flow and sapping momentum” (Young 2016). Instead, the film hinders identification by presenting us with characters already dead. The title, Paradise, sounds several times in the recollections: it is the paradise for everyone that Hitler’s Reich tries to create, which has proven an impossible task—thus states the SS Officer; Commander Krause confirms that paradise is impossible without the hell (that is, the camp he is managing, including gas chambers and crematorium). Olga’s memory ends with a voice-over that tells her not to be afraid: she has been admitted—to paradise, the only paradise that is true, and not an earthly one. A white screen signals this admission—and forms the film’s end.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University

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Works Cited

Lodge, Guy. 2016. “Film Review: Paradise.” Variety 8 Sept.

Romney, Jonatahn. 2016. “Paradise: Venice Review.” ScreenDaily 8 Sept.

Young, Neil. 2016. “Paradise (Rai): Film Review. Venice 2016.” Hollywood Reporter 7 Sept.

Paradise, Russia and Germany, 2016
b/w, 130 minutes
Director: Andrei Konchalovskii
Script: Andrei Konchalovskii, Elena Kiseleva
DoP: Aleksandr Simonov
Composer: Sergei Shustitskii
Production Design: Irina Ochina, Josef Sanktjohanser
Costumes: Dmitrii Andreev,Vladimir Nikiforov
Cast: Iuliia Vysotskaia, Christian Clauss, Peter Kurth, Philippe Duquesne, Viktor Sukhorukov, Jakob Diehl, Veronika Voronkova
Producers: Florian Deyle, Andrei Konchalovskii
Production: Production Center of Andrei Konchalovsky, DRIFE Production, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the RF and Eurimages

Andrei Konchalovskii. Paradise (Rai, 2016)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2017

Updated: 11 Apr 17