by Andrew Howe
If you are overcome by a burning need to write a comedy about the Holocaust, the obvious solution would be to pen an ode to the indomitable human spirit, celebrating mankindís ability to find humour amidst even the darkest of situations. Radu Mihaileanu, writer and director of the French film Train of Life, evidently had other ideas, since his creation features lashings of farce, slapstick and German soldiers who appear to have stepped out of Carry On FŁhrer. A single scene ensures he avoids charges of trivialising what is, in my opinion, the single greatest argument for wiping our species from the face of the Earth, but thatĎs not enough to save this surprisingly lightweight effort from becoming little more than a marginally successful experiment.The premise is, admittedly, rather intriguing. A Jewish village learns that the Nazis are approaching with malice in their hearts, so the village idiot, Schlomo, concocts an outlandish plan which, given that it is the product of a madman in a time of madness, is entirely appropriate to the situation. The village leaders agree to purchase a train, dress a select few of their own in Nazi uniforms, and pretend that the trainís Jewish occupants are en route to deportation, with the idea being that they will eventually steam on into Russia and freedom. Since the basic concept is no less believable than ninety percent of the boyís-own war films of yesteryear, Mihaileanu could conceivably have turned the film into a cracking thriller. Unfortunately, I suspect he wrote the ending and tried to build a script around it, and the result is the type of unsubtle comedy that the French inexplicably find so amusing.
"Are the French and humour mutually exclusive?"
So it is that we are presented with a succession of scenes which are hard-pressed to raise even a ghost of a smile, including (but not limited to) a tiresome sub-plot involving Marxist Jews; the pointless inclusion of a group of rebels who are under the impression that the train is everything it appears to be, and are therefore intent on blowing it up; and run-inís with Nazis who are so dim-witted they make Homer Simpson look like Socrates. Most of the cast also seem to be under the impression that waving their arms and exaggerating their vocal delivery is, of itself, a reason to be amused, which it might be if we were still deep in the mire of the 1970ís and surrounded on all fronts by the likes of Some Mothers Do ĎAve ĎEm and The Benny Hill Show.
Of course, I am a known opponent of screwball comedies, so if The Three Stooges tickle your fancy then you may well find yourself rolling in the aisles. However, itís also worth noting that, unless you speak fluent French (I donít), the vocal inflexions and subtleties of the language which are so important to comedy will be lost to you (timing is also an issue, since reading an amusing line a split-second before it is delivered reduces its impact), which is yet another reason to be wary.
Surprisingly, when Mihaileanu takes time out from attempting to elicit a little strained laughter thereís moments which are worthy of praise - the actors playing Schlomo (Lionel Abelanski) and Mordechai (Rufus, who doesnít appear to be burdened with a surname), the villager who assumes the role of the trainís commander, bring a touching gravity to the proceedings on occasion, leading me to speculate that a more dramatic approach might have reaped dividends.
Thereís also the matter of the ending, which almost makes up for the events which preceded it. Unfortunately, while a shoddy conclusion has been known to ruin an otherwise-laudable film, the reverse is seldom true, since one memorable scene doesnít make up for forcing the viewer to endure a mind-numbing serving of vaudevillian humour.The marketers would have you believe that Train of Life is a touching, thought-provoking masterpiece. For sixty seconds itís exactly that, but the rest of the film will be of interest to only the most masochistic fans of French comedies (which is, letís face it, a niche pursuit). Everyone else would be well advised to steer clear, for while it does have an important message, itís not worth wading through a hundred minutes of inanity to glimpse it.
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originally posted: 01/05/01 14:24:15