“You’ll be quite a sensation in Auschwitz [II], my boy.” — officer to Jew boarding transport train from Theresienstadt to Birkenau
Written by the director, Zbyněk Brynych, and Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig from Lustig’s book Night and Hope, Transport z ráje (best film, Locarno) is one of the most brilliant works of both the Czech New Wave and Holocaust cinema. It imaginatively takes us into the Terezin Ghetto in Germany (the opening shot, from inside an SS officer’s entering car, ironically sets us in the front passenger seat), the model “town” devised to hoodwink the International Red Cross and the rest of the world into believing that Jewish prisoners were being treated humanely by the Nazis. A documentary such as the one being shot there in the film’s first movement actually was made, and in his quick, cunning, precise direction of the camera Brynych distinguishes between his own film and this film-within-the-film, catching closeups of spent or fearful faces amidst the general pretense at comfort and ease. One of his gripping techniques is to create pseudo-photographs of the people being filmed, either by real or simulated freeze frames (it is possible that the actors are simply holding very still), which with only the scarcest motion then come eerily to not-quite-life. Thus the false impression of benign circumstance is invested with a sense of horror. Partially whistled upbeat music adds dark ironical humor.
An underground group within the Ghetto operates a printing press; the discovery of some of its handiwork—posters saying “Death to the Fascists!”—invites retaliation: thousands will be ordered selected, and transported to Birkenau, for extermination. (Of the 140,000 Jews who spent time in the Terezin Ghetto, 24% died there and 64% were deported to death camps.) When he refuses to sign the deportation order, the head of the Jewish Council of Elders is arrested and replaced with someone compliant. The image of this man at the moment of his brave refusal finds him surrounded in blackness, his sewn-on Star of David, lustrously prominent—an emblem of pride rather than of the disgrace the Nazis had intended. Throughout this stark black-and-white film, closeups of faces withstand backgrounds of pitch darkness or are half-lost to the darkness. Also, individual closeups and two-person closeups, such as between a Nazi and a Jew, are deliberately oppressive.
But the night before the transport there are tender closeups of two young lovers who will lose each other the next day. After they part that night, the woman offers comfort to a boy who writes home—where there is probably no one to receive a letter—to assure his parents that he is now a grown-up. In a way, this is true; he is his own father now.
A Kafkaesque image—one that becomes a visual refrain—consists of a vast expanse of tagged suitcases in a chillingly dark room.
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