A scene from Paradise (Film Movement)

Several off-camera personalities courteously take turns dominating Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, an epic World War II saga filmed in deep black and fine-grained white.  It is as though three different directors took control of the story that follows a White Russian countess and Nazi resister, Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), as she is imprisoned by the French police and sent to a concentration camp. Fate reunites her with Helmut (Christian Clauss), an old flame, in conditions neither could have ever foreseen: he’s a straitlaced Nazi nobleman assigned by Himmler to clean up corruption in the camp, and in a warehouse, he recognizes Olga from the delicate curve of her neck as she sorts the goods of the dead.

This brief plotline cannot summarize Paradise’s many narrative threads, but describing the three different artists who (metaphorically) alternate control of Paradise conveys a sense of its scope. We’ll name the first observer The Refined Hitman. From the film’s first frames, this shrewd, pitiless auteur forces us to cringe at the panicked screams from the countess’s jail cell. This director stands by as a French collaborator’s jowly, placid surface slowly reveals the unease as the prospect of a surefire Nazi victory begins to fade.  His section conveys the dog-eat-dog squalor of the camp and the speed in which a life can be lost. In shots dramatic with high contrast and cavernous depth of field, The Hitman pinpoints the way war brings out predation, envy, and sexual opportunism in war’s victors and victims.

The second observer is an unseen confessor or psychiatrist whom we can call The Mystic.  He has the countess, the Nazi, and the collaborator, Jules (Philippe Duquesne), each sit alone in a room we grow to recognize as the afterlife, where they recall their time on earth. The Mystic may be trying to bring his doomed protagonists closer to us. Or, are their confidences a distancing technique? It’s difficult to know, but these interludes on distressed-looking film drag the film’s pace and take up a great deal of screen time.

The countess makes the most intriguing of the interviewees as she breaks into tears over painful wartime memories, her soliloquies recalling sacrifice and stoicism (with Alexander Simonov’s camera flattering Vysotskaya’s angular, striking features, offset by a severely shaved head).

The bourgeois French collaborator talks about his early life with predictable banality. But highbrow Helmut ambles into disquisitions on the master race, Nietzsche, Chekhov, and even Chekhov’s Jewish ex-fiancée, whom he is surprised has been taken in by the Gestapo. (Well, that’s what happens when you target an entire race for death—everyone falls into the death trap, even those with an illustrious pedigree.) The Mystic seems to want to set up Helmut as a sensitive Nazi, but the German veers between remorse, superiority, and self-justification that betray an essential callowness.

Olga and Helmut offer wistful descriptions of the halcyon prewar days when they met and fell in love. And now Paradise has a third director’s point of view: Herr Caprice, throwing in high-strung dramatic touches that don’t always feel right in a large-scale tragedy. Herr Caprice treats us to prewar merriment, where chortling chuckleheads in designer whites dance the Charleston and play blind man’s bluff as a backdrop to Helmut and Olga’s affair. While the war turns against the Nazis and foes circle the camp, a tortured gay comrade gets wildly drunk and pours out unrequited love for Helmut. And a pair of endangered Jewish children bobs in and out of the plot as symbols of their rescuer’s virtue and hope for the future

The three approaches to one of the past’s great horrors keep the viewer feinting to keep up as scenes of war and terror pulsate with austere beauty. The striking images and the never-ending sense of immeasurable harm inflicted allows Paradise’s most controlling director, the Refined Hitman, to have the final word. Konchalovsky looks back on history, and makes our blood run cold.

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Written by Konchalovsky and Elena Kiseleva
French, Russian, German, and Yiddish with English subtitles
Russia/Germany. 132 min. Not rated
With Julia Vysotskaya, Philippe Duquesne, and Christian Clauss