Berlin impresarios star-crossed tale of fame and hubris

It was Kurt Gerron’s misfortune that the Nazis knocked him from his pedestal as one of Germany’s most popular entertainers and filmmakers.

And it was calamitous bad luck that they eventually put him on the last transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz — and killed him on arrival, the day before Heinrich Himmler ordered the gas chambers closed.

But it was Gerron’s own imperiousness that kept him from taking refuge in America years earlier. And it was his desperate need to work behind the camera once again that led to his directing an infamous propaganda film for the Nazis.

Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender’s documentary, “Prisoner of Paradise,” offers a tragic central character and high production values. But a surfeit of technique and gimmickry blunt its emotional punch, leaving us surprisingly unmoved by Gerron’s plight.

“Prisoner of Paradise,” which received an Oscar nomination in the documentary category, screens tomorrow and Sunday as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Co-director Sender will be present.

The rotund Gerron rose to fame playing countless roles on stage and screen in the 1920s. The Jewish actor sang “Mack the Knife” in the original production of “The Threepenny Opera,” and it became his signature tune.

In 1930, Gerron starred as the impresario opposite Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” — assuring his immortality — and turned to directing movies. Never without a cigar, Gerron lived well and ate well, as befit one of Berlin’s most-celebrated personalities.

Perhaps it was vanity, or maybe he thought mainstream success provided protection, but Gerron was caught unprepared by the Nazi rise to power. He was directing a film the day that a boycott of “non-Aryans” went into effect, and was escorted off his own set in humiliation while the cast and crew stood by.

The filmmakers turn up a few interviews with people who knew Gerron in those days, but they largely rely on film clips, still photos, musical recordings and a great deal of Ian Holm’s haughty narration. The upshot is that we never feel as if we really know what Gerron is thinking and feeling.

Finding work in Paris, Gerron went into exile with his wife and parents. His salad days were over, but he was still able to raise money to help actor Peter Lorre sail to Hollywood.

By the time Gerron himself received an offer from the American movie industry, he was busy working in Amsterdam. He cabled his acceptance — if the studio brought him and his family over in first class. The offer was for coach accommodations, though, and Gerron declined.

So it is a matter of debate to what degree he contributed to his own destruction. Similarly, one can question his decision, several years later, to direct “The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City.” By this time, he was imprisoned at Theresienstadt, where he organized the Cabaret Karussel of musicians and artists.

The Nazis, well aware of his talents, promised that he wouldn’t be put on a transport if he directed a film showing how good life in the camp was for the Jews. It was a devil’s bargain, but Holm’s narration and the use of staged re-creations serve to distance us from Gerron’s dilemma rather than pulling us closer.

As biographies go, “Prisoner of Paradise” diligently traces the highs and lows of Gerron’s life. But it falls short in bringing its subject fully, unforgettably, to life.

“Prisoner of Paradise” screens at 6:45 p.m. Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Information: (925) 866-9559 or

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.