"Kurt Gerron needed a stage or film set as much as he needed breath," notes one Holocaust survivor in "Prisoner of Paradise," which is vying for best documentary feature honors at the March 23 Academy Awards.
The survivor's observation helps to explain both the triumphs and the inglorious end of Gerron, who was among the talented Jewish artists who made Berlin the liveliest city in Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s.
As an actor, director and cabaret star, the big, heavy-set Gerron made more than 70 movies, introduced "Mack the Knife" as the original Tiger Brown in "The Threepenny Opera," and played the impresario-magician in the unforgettable "Blue Angel" with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings.
His German career came to an abrupt end on April 1, 1933, when all "non-Aryans" were evicted from the set of a film he was directing. He immigrated to Holland and established himself as the director of the Dutch Municipal Theater and later of a Jewish theater.
He was offered a chance to come to Hollywood, but Gerron, a man of considerable naiveté and vanity, turned down the invitation because he wasn't offered a first-class ticket for the voyage to America.
Ultimately deported to Theresienstadt, he organized the Cabaret Karussell (Carousel), but his big chance came in early 1944. To counter increasing reports of the mass murder of Jews, the Nazi hierarchy decided to make a propaganda film, depicting life in the "model ghetto," and chose Gerron as the director.
For Gerron to be back on a movie set was a chance to live again, and he threw himself into his work. He forced the "actors" to "look happy" and the final cut of the movie showed inmates frolicking in a swimming pool, dancing to swing music (otherwise forbidden in Germany) and children complaining that they were forced to eat too much.
The ludicrous film, titled "The Fuehrer Gives a City to the Jews," was completed in September 1944, was never shown and only fragments survive. For his services, Gerron was put on the final transport from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and killed on his arrival.
"Prisoner of Paradise" is slated to air on PBS in late April. The Academy Awards will air March 23 on ABC.