Portly and sardonic, the German actor Kurt Gerron was a star of Weimar cabaret. He introduced “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” in the original production of The Threepenny Opera, played the manager of the eponymous nightclub in The Blue Angel, and directed (as well as appeared in) a number of German movie musicals. He was apparently so engrossed in his career that he was taken by surprise when the Nazis purged Jews from German show business.
Gerron missed his opportunity to join Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder in Hollywood, and moved to Amsterdam. “Dutch audiences had never had it so good,” narrator Ian Holm notes in the absorbing TV doc Prisoner of Paradise. The Nazis, however, used clips of Gerron in their most odious propaganda film, The Eternal Jew. When Holland was overrun, Gerron was deported first to the transit camp at Westerbork (where he entertained other Jews en route to Auschwitz) and then to the Theresienstadt ghetto outside of Prague. He continued to perform and, late in the war, was drafted by the Nazis to direct the outrageously sanitized version of Theresienstadt, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews. Shortly after it wrapped, he was sent to his death.
Telling this tale, Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender make no attempt to get inside Gerron’s head. Rather, they provide a fascinating and painful account of an entertainer trapped not only by his Jewishness but by his overwhelming need to make theater.