Andrey Konchalovsky’s Paradise opens on a macabre joke that blooms into a haunting metaphor for entitlement and delusion. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian member of the French Resistance, is shoved into a holding cell in Fresnes prison in 1942 after police catch her hiding Jewish children. Once she’s in the cell, the camera lingers on the facility’s sterile hallway as the film’s title appears over the image. Olga wouldn’t think of this place as a paradise, though the France that Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a Parisian police inspector and Gestapo collaborator, knows is more suitable for the word. He reads the paper and has a leisurely breakfast with his family each morning before going into the office to hunt Jews and torture resistance fighters. It’s there that he orders cigars and coffee before questioning Olga and making a deal to extort sex from her in exchange for the safety of one of her compatriots. The manners with which Jules orders luxuries and interrogates Olga are pointedly undifferentiated: For this man, both acts are negotiations based in protocol, representative of his comfort and good breeding.
Which is to say that Jules’s paradise is dependent on Olga’s hell, as places of great abundance demand corresponding realms of strife and suppression. Konchalovsky offers this juxtaposition as a representation of the evil that’s inherent in the Nazi dream of utopia, a realm of white supremacy devised by Adolf Hitler to cater to working-class frustrations, demonizing Jews and other “impure” bloodlines as subhuman scapegoats for Germany’s strife. A third character, parallel to Jules, clarifies this conceit: Helmut (Christian Clauß), an S.S. officer who boasts a noble German bloodline and is celebrated by no less than Heinrich Himmler (Viktor Sukhorukov), a leading member of the Nazi party, as the future of Hitler’s regime in a scene that’s perverse even by the standards of a film concerned with the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In a baroque duet, Himmler informs Helmut of Hitler’s dreams of living as an obscure artist in Italy after Germany has gained global domination, annihilated the Jews, and exacted brutal revenge on Russia and America. The casualness of Himmler’s proclamations is obscene, as is Hitler’s ludicrous fantasy of anonymity and creation. A great thief and destructor feels entitled to reinvent himself on a whim in the ultimate joke of white privilege. Konchalovsky understands that Hitler’s denial—of guilt and complicity—is a bigger manifestation of the denial that’s practiced by Jules, Helmut, and by anyone who contributes to a society that benefits from exploitation.
Konchalovsky embraces a self-consciously labored aesthetic that underlines, highlights, and double-checks every irony and symbol, and his obviousness is both tiring and bluntly poetic. (When Jules and his son observe an anthill closing its holes for winter, for instance, it’s understood as an illustration of the great eye-turning that characterizes collaboration with the enemy.) The film, shot in gorgeous yet austere black and white, is divided into nearly self-contained segments, somewhat recalling Konchalovsky’s 1979 epic Siberiade. Olga, Jules, and Helmut are frequently featured in interview scenes, in which they talk to the screen against a drab background, suggesting that they’re being questioned by Allied forces after the end of World War II. These sequences are rife with tedious exposition and intentionally kill the film’s momentum. The interview concept is an alienating device, then, designed to keep viewers from enjoying the melodrama of the narrative, which might turn Paradise into the sort of romantic espionage thriller that one’s seen hundreds of times before. Konchalovsky allows a retrospective pall to hang over the film that indicts Jules, Helmut, Olga, and even art, which grants audiences the opportunity to congratulate themselves for evincing superficial empathy.
Yet Paradise is more than an exercise, as pitiless moments accumulate with enraged relentlessness. When a woman dies near Olga in a concentration camp, she and the other prisoners descend on the corpse with desperate savagery, as Olga procures boots to replace those that were stolen from her earlier. Olga reencounters the Jewish children that she tried to save in Paris, only to allow another prisoner in the camp to care for them later as she becomes distracted with a romance with Helmut, who plucks her out of the barracks for himself. Konchalovsky routinely denies us an easy “out,” coaxing and dwarfing our expectations for pat redemption and closure.
In the film’s most ironic and devastating scene, Olga, almost insane with relief, celebrates Germans as the “master race” when Helmut says that he will sneak her away to Switzerland. Understanding the Nazi ideology for the hypocritical and nonsensical evil that it is, Helmut is disgusted with Olga for parroting his own platitudes back to him, as this epitome of her effacement confirms to him the debasement of his culture, which is rumored to have murdered the fiancée of one of his heroes, Chekhov. In other words, Konchalovsky has the daring to stage a scene in which a Nazi has a moral position that’s superior to that of an imprisoned resistance fighter. Because Helmut, with his insulating wealth and influence, has the luxury of a moral pretense, as does Jules. Starving, living as a rat in a cage that might snuff her out at any moment, Olga is indoctrinated into her German-assigned role of subhuman.
Konchalovsky’s lack of sentimentality and textured staging forge a lucid vision of a nightmare. Jules and Helmut initially enjoy their coffee and women because they’ve found a way not to empathize with the people who’re suffering under the tendrils of a machine so operatic in its madness as to be oxymoronically invisible. A human being can acclimate to anything, which allows Helmut to survey a scrapbook of defiled corpses and disembodied heads as one might regard tax returns. Jules and Helmut eventually awaken from their madness but after the fact and at great cost to themselves and those around them. The film doesn’t allow us to believe that we’re purified by watching it. Most of us aren’t as complicit in savagery as Helmut, but many of us are closer in sensibility to Jules than we’d dare acknowledge.