“Theresienstadt is truly the town Adolf Hitler has gifted to the Jews,” claims SS General Knecht (Jindřich Narenta) as he is being shown around the ghetto in Czech director Zbynĕk Brynych’s gruelling Transport from Paradise (1963). Presented merely as the Nazi’s overseeing an autonomous Jewish community in the appropriated town of Terezín, the film reveals the stifling fear and horror beneath the otherwise smiling façade. Co-written by Asnost Lustig, who survived both the occupation and a concentration camp, the film is often considered both a jewel of the Czech New Wave and of holocaust films and arrives on UK DVD shelves courtesy of Second Run.
The arrival of General Knecht opens proceedings as he’s taken on a tour of the novel Theresienstadt. Here, the Jews apparently govern themselves, but it becomes quickly evident quite how ironically the ‘paradise’ of the title is intended. This may chime with the opinion of the callous German officers, but the inhabitants’ freedoms are only permitted upon the condition of adhering to certain Nazi constraints. The Star of David must be worn; pregnancy is forbidden; a list for transport to labour camps must be drawn up when required. As the oppression is revealed, however, so is the dissent. Hidden beneath benign posters are rebellious slogans, and ensconced in deserted buildings are prohibited printing presses.
Though it would be hard not to characterise Brynych’s film as grim, Transport from Paradise does inject both some darkly satirical notes into proceedings and well as some stylistic flourishes. The notion of the setting as some kind of utopian ghetto is sent up with jaunty music and the well- behaved citizens duly play their contented parts for a German film crew. The first explicit sense of the masked terror comes when the chairman of Jewish council refuses to sign the list of names due for the next transport because he knows about the gas chambers waiting at its destination. Brynych also utilises the mundane to signify the atrocious, particularly in a standout sequence amongst a labyrinth whose walls are made from discarded suitcases.
Taken from each new arrival and stacked in a disused warehouse they form a disorientating and almost Kafka-esque backdrop whilst serving as a sobering reminder both of the death at the end of the tracks, and the cold consideration of the inhabitants of Theresienstadt as merely numbers. Although it never quite scales the artistic heights of Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night (1964) or Juraj Herz’s stunning work The Cremator (1969), Transport from Paradise offers another interesting look at Czechoslovakia’s wartime history and is another worthwhile home entertainment release from the ever-consistent Second Run.