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.
Shlomo (Lionel 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.
Mordechai’s 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.