Train of Life
1998, R, 103 min. Directed by Radu Mihaileanu. Starring Mihai Calin, Bruno Abraham-Kremer, Agathe De La Fontaine, Marie-José Nat, Clément Harari, Rufus, Michel Muller, Lionel Abelanski.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 24, 1999
Following in the peculiar tradition of such Holocaust dramedys as Life Is Beautiful and, to a lesser degree, Mel Brooks' version of To Be or Not to Be, this boisterous, comic film begins with a panicked flight through an Eastern European forest and ends on a note of such unexpected gravity that it's difficult to put out of your mind even weeks later. The woods runner in question is Schlomo (Abelanski), the village idiot of a ramshackle Jewish shtetl, who is rushing to alert the rebbes that the fragmentary rumors of camps, trains, and far worse are not only true, but also headed their way. After a hastily called meeting involving more beard-tugging than ever seen before on film, the village elders finally agree that Schlomo's idea might just be the ticket: Why not build their own train, populate it with villagers dressed as Nazis, and breeze right through the jaws of the enemy to the Russian border, some 500 miles away? As in the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, which Mihaileanu's film closely resembles, the child-fool often has the best solution. Once the “so crazy it just might work” plan is announced, the villagers hurriedly begin cobbling together Nazi uniforms, while others begin the search for a working locomotive and boxcars. The wary Mordechai (Rufus) -- dressed in full Obergruppenfuhrer regalia -- is selected to head the Semitic stormtroopers, while others battle it out to see who fills the other jackbooted positions. All of this is done with a solemnity that is wildly shattered by much of the rest of the film, which revolves around a number of what can only be termed “zany” subplots -- among them the burgeoning romance between the bookish young Torah scholar Sami (Calin) and the village beauty Esther (De La Fontaine), and the highly vocal misadventures of Yossi (Muller), a “better Red than dead” pedant who engages any and all in the call to join the Communists across the border. When Train of Life is moving at top speed, Mihaileanu strikes an interesting compromise between portraying the flustered, anxious members of the community as they race to escape an almost certain, deadly fate, and injecting strains of flat-out vaudevillian comedy. It's a tough mix to hold together, and the two styles occasionally clash, but the film has such a bizarre, surrealistic tone to begin with that the topsy-turviness of it all manages to echo the madness of wartime to a tee. Lunacy is the name of the game, and it pays to bear in mind that this is a tale being told by a lunatic. Much of the film is frankly ludicrous, but that does little to dispel its overall power and passion. It's a comedy, it's a horror show, it's a romance, and it's a call to Communist arms -- it's such an oddball assemblage that it simply can't click all the time, but when it fires on all cylinders, it's one of the most shocking, affecting Holocaust films yet seen.