Reply to Jan Onderwater's review of "Kurt Gerron's Karussell"
From: Alison Hindhaugh, Strasbourg, France. I read with interest Mr Onderwater's review of "Kurt Gerron's Karussell" but can't help feeling that he missed the point of this documentary. Ilona's Ziok film is anything BUT a biopic of Kurt Gerron and Mr Onderwater is absolutely right to take recourse to written material if he wants the more detailed information about Gerron's life which this film does not, and does not aim to provide. Instead, Ziok has made a "creative documentary" which succeeds in evoking the ambiance of the show business world in pre-holoca ust years as well as the atmosphere of the Theresienstadt camp. She uses songs, very personal eye witness accounts and archive material to create a visual and musical evocation of Gerron's life and last years. I find the film wholly satisfying, in that it succeeds in achieving exactly what it set out to do: recreate the "feel" of an era with its sounds and images.
I enclose, for information, the review I wrote of "Kurt Gerron's Karussel" for the European "DOX" magazine, reproduced with their permission :
Kurt Gerron was big. Huge even. Had he made it to America, he could have been bigger than W.C. Fields or Oliver Hardy. He never made it, because he was gassed by the Nazis in Auschwitz in September 1944.
The fate of Kurt Gerron, the corpulent German-Jewish entertainer who played alongside Dietrich and Jannings in "The Blue Angel", is the subject of this documentary. Ilona Ziok has chosen to tell Gerron's story because it is poignantly representative of a lesser-documented aspect of the Holocaust: the persecution of the Jewish show people (actors, singers, musicians) and their internment in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Deprived of freedom, food and hope, the prisoners of Theresienstadt could only do what they did best: put on shows and make music.
Structurally, Ziok opts for a chronological account of Gerron's life via the various cities where he chose to - or was forced - to live and work. Accompanied by archival footage, Gerron's biographer Roy Kift takes us from Berlin to Paris, Amsterdam, Westerbork deportation camp, Theresienstadt and, finally, Auschwitz.
This film is the re-creation of Gerron's cabaret show which he wrote and staged while a prisoner in Theresienstadt: the Karussel. Ute Lemper, Max Raabe ("Der Bewegte Man") and Ben Becker ("Comedian Harmonists") perform Gerron's songs to an audience of those who were with him in Theresienstadt, yet survived. The combination of the ironic, bittersweet cabaret style of the songs written about and in Theresienstadt with drawings of the living hell of the camp is chillingly effective.
Those who knew and worked with Gerron recount their anecdotes of this elusive character who was once described as "the night ghost". The baker of Theresienstadt remembers how Gerron gave him a one hour elocution lesson in return for a loaf of bread. Actress Rene St. Cyr recalls how Gerron finally managed to persuade her into shooting a nude shower scene - something unheard of at the time.
The final tragedy of Gerron's fate, so representative of the fate of thousands of Theresienstadt prisoners, lies in the fact that he believed that his show business activities within the camp would keep him alive : the "Karussel" as Cabaret of Life. He even agreed to direct a propaganda film for the Nazis about the camp - " a city given to the Jews as a gift" - in return for a promise that he would be spared the gas chambers. Unaware that the Nazis had already deported entire orchestras to Auschwitz, Gerron was forced to beg for his life to be spared. In vain.
It is left to Roy Kift to close this deeply moving documentary by recounting Gerron's final moments in Auschwitz: the fate of a big, big man who could have been huge, but who was reduced to skin and bone - and finally ashes - by the Nazi killing machine.
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