April 26, 2011
Deceiving the audience and the self
“The Führer Gives the Jews a City” must rank as the oddest film fragment in cinematic history.
The 23 minutes of raw, unedited footage is all that has been found of a Nazi propaganda project to “prove” that the “model” Theresienstadt camp was a veritable paradise for its Jewish inmates.
Shot in early 1944, when the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution finally trickled out to the West, the film was part of an effort to hoodwink a visiting International Red Cross delegation that Theresienstadt was all productive work and wholesome recreation, and by extension the other concentration camps, as well.
There, contented workers shod horses, made pottery and designed handbags; in the evenings well-dressed men and women attended concerts and lectures, and kids played soccer or gorged themselves on sandwiches.
All this to the incongruous background music from Offenbach’s “Gaite Parisienne” or a jazzy “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.”
The director of this curiosity was a mountainous Jewish inmate, Kurt Gerron, whose strange story of pride and self-deception is documented in a companion film, “Kurt Gerron’s Karussell [Carousel].”
A native Berliner born Kurt Gerson, Gerron was a larger-than-life figure, both in girth and as a leading impresario in the swinging Berlin cabaret scene of the 1920s.
He was also a successful actor, playing the nightclub owner in “The Blue Angel” opposite Marlene Dietrich, and was featured in the world premiere cast of “The Threepenny Opera.”
Though banned from the German stage in 1933, Gerron persisted in the self-delusion that his talent and charm would triumph in the end.
When Peter Lorre and other German expatriates in Hollywood arranged for Gerron to join them and even would have paid the travel expenses for the impresario and his family, Gerron refused on the grounds that the proffered ship accommodations weren’t first class.
He did establish a temporary second career in France and Holland, but the Nazis caught up with him and deported him to Theresienstadt.
When “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” project came along, Gerron saw a chance to resume his career and signed on as director. He also swallowed the “word of honor” of the German camp commandant that his life would be spared after he completed the film.
Instead, Gerron was sent to Auschwitz in October 1944, and he was killed one day before SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave the order to shut down the gas chambers for good.
“Karussell” director Ilona Ziok combines footage of Gerron’s halcyon days in Berlin with testimony of surviving Jewish camp prisoners to draw a picture of Gerron as a tragic, self-deluded figure, “a big, strong man with the mind of a child,” in the words of a fellow Theresienstadt prisoner.
“Kurt Gerron’s Karussell” is available as a DVD, but distribution of “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” has been sharply limited by the distributor.
A spokesman for Seventh Art Releasing said that the film fragment was available for free, but fearing misuse of the material, he stipulated that it be used only for educational and scholarly purposes by schools or religious institutions, and must be clearly labeled as Nazi propaganda.