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of Life (1998)
Train of Life, dealing with a Jewish village's
attempts to survive in the face of looming Nazi extermination, is more than another Life is Beautiful. The
two films do share one common bond: humor, the idea that only a joke can have any effect
when staring down the barrel of a gun. Rumanian director Radu Mihaileanu has taken an old
Russian fable and extrapolated it into a modern folk tale of survival. The story which
could be deadly if treated seriously is done in slapstick style and is very, very funny.
Abelanski), who is either the village idiot or the wisest man on the planet, opens the
film running and screaming into his little shtetl, his village. He has a message for the
Rabbi: the Nazis are coming. They have destroyed the next village over the mountains and
will come here next. What shall we do?
The Rabbi (Clement
Harari) assembles the town elders and asks for suggestions. None has any. But Shlomo does.
He says he has dreamed the answer: they should build a train and put everyone in the
village on it. Some will be disguised as German soldiers and some will not. As they steam
towards Palestine and freedom they will fool other Germans into thinking this is simply
another train of Jews heading east to the concentration camps. Lacking a better idea, the
village adopts this one.
There are many
problems, of course. One is teaching the Yiddish-speaking villagers how to speak proper
German. The answer is to think like a German, not like a Jew. "To speak German you
must take all the fun out of it," says their teacher. Another problem is to
select a leader to play the Nazi general. Mordechai the Woodcarver (Rufus) is chosen. From
the moment he dons his newly-sewn German army uniform, Mordechai becomes more and more
authoritarian. His dealings with real Nazis, in which he must beat back his Jewishness,
are among the best parts of the film.
son,Yossi (Michael Muller), wants to lead a Communist revolution. Esther (Agathe de la
Fontaine) will not marry Yossi but has her eye set on various other available young men in
the town. When she is seducing one of
the revolutionaries, as she removes her clothes, she says, "aren't these worth Marx,
Lenin and Engels?". Shlomo, in his capacity as idiot savant, devises all the schemes
the town uses for its escape.
The Jews find it
hard to listen to their leader when he is wearing a Nazi uniform. The ersatz Nazis
soldiers, on the other hand, now feel quite superior to their villagers who are still
peasants. Everyone resists every attempt at leadership, but in the end all go along for
the common good.
There is a lot of
music in the film. At times it comes perilously close to looking and sounding like
"World War II: The Musical." But there are many effective musical scenes. The
klezmer musicians, who play whenever the village has something to celebrate, are quite
good. Towards the end of the film, the escaping band of Jews meets up with an escaping
band of gypsies. That evening around a fire they have a "battle of the bands" in
which gypsy and Jewish musicians take turns trying to outdo one another. The music in Train
of Life is sometimes incongruous, but always first rate.
The ending of the
film is not the ending you hope for, nor is it the one you fear. It is simply the only
logical ending to a roller-coaster of a train ride towards the fabled land of freedom.