Until recently, the Holocaust was usually dealt with in narrative films in two ways: as tragedy, expressed on a grand scale (Schindler’s List) or between individuals (The Harmonists); or through guilt, as in the whole genre of French films (The Last Metro, Au revoir les enfants) which detail the intricacies of collaborating with the Nazis. In both cases, there existed an underlying reasoning that, given the harsh circumstances, survival for some meant certain death for others.
But with Train of Life — superficially similar to Life is Beautiful and Jakob the Liar in that it dares to find humor within this monolith of death and degradation — writer-director Radu Mihaileanu has extended his fable of deliverance to an entire community. In this unnamed shtetl, one life lost means the disintegration of an entire way of life.
Even though Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski) is considered a fool, the elders of this Jewish village take his warning about the impending arrival of German troops very seriously. Recognizing the danger, the Rabbi (Clement Harari) looks for a way out, a route to salvation. He recognizes it in the bizarre logic of Shlomo’s outlandish plan: that they acquire their own train, dress it up as a Nazi transport and take everyone to freedom instead of a concentration camp.
Because Mihaileanu chooses to treat the whole community as one organism, when he focuses on individuals — such as the woodworker Mordechai (Rufus) who is drafted into impersonating a Nazi commander and begins to do it all too well, or Yossi (Michael Muller) who embraces communism as an alternative social construct without understanding its political or religious ramifications — it is only to tug at a fabric so well woven that no small tear is allowed to unravel it. Yet in portraying this interdependent community, he employs nearly every Jewish stereotype imaginable.
Is Train of Life meant to be a broad comedy or a heartfelt evocation of the lost world of rural Jewish shtetls? The Romanian-born, Paris-based director wants it both ways, thereby trapping his characters on a ghost train driven by the fantastical vision of an idiot savant.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].