Train of Life (1998) Review

Eyal Roth 22.5.2020

Coming out around the same time as movies like “Life is beautiful” by Roberto Benini (1997) and “Jacob the Liar” by Peter Kassovitz (1999), “Train of Life” too explores the morally problematic possibility of producing a comedy about the Holocaust.  

Is comedy a legitimate genre of film about one of the darkest periods in human history? These films seem to claim it is; with varying levels of success.

In “Train of Life”, Schlomo, portrayed by Lionel Abelanski is the “village idiot” of a small generic Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe, after finding out about the approach of the Nazis to the village, he decides to warn everybody and offer a daring self-rescue plan. The villagers will buy a train, fix it up to look like a Nazi transport train and use it to transport themselves to Palestine. This absurd plan is obviously a logistical impossibility in the reality of those times, but this film does not take itself too seriously and offers an alternative reality in which European Jews could save themselves from a curtain death with the help of some creativity and chutzpa.

A few of the more “Aryan” looking Jewish villagers will need to play the role of the SS troops accompanying the train, that of course also means that they would need to get a decent control of the German language, leading to an hilarious moment where one the “Aryan” looking Jews realizes that Yiddish is a humorous parody of the German language.

The portrayal of Jews in SS uniforms also treats us to a uniquely bizarre scene where the train stops for the holy day of Saturday and outside the train local partisans are confounded with the image of SS man standing in formation, wearing the Jewish prayer shawl and praying towards Jerusalem. Though that’s not where the role playing ends, some of the other Jews (the non – “Aryan” resembling”), unhappy with their treatment by the fake village SS, decide to operate an underground communist faction on the train. The majority of the village will remain in their initial role of religious orthodox Jews. Thus we have a train carrying many of the conflicts of the first part of the 20th century, between different totalitarian ideas and the values of the old world, and the fact that the creation of classes within the train was initially  meant as a ruse to fool the real world, gets sidelined, and an actual life threatening situations ensues.

 A few characters will find themselves out of these rigid roles; Schlomo (the “village idiot”) is the child that notices the absence of the king’s new clothes and tries to act as the mediator between the different factions. The same applies to the town rabbi who also acts as the leader of the villagers.

Another such character that manages to transcend the political struggles in the train is Esther played by Agatha de la Fontaine. Esther (the only central female role in the film) manages to see through the absurd group dynamics and concentrates on finding true love. One could debate if Esthers disinterest in politics represents an outdated female stereotype (whether intentionally or not), or whether it has to do with the fact that as a woman she is not given a chance to weigh in on the political issues at hand and thus decides to ignore them.

Faced with a dangerous and turbulent world around them, the Shtetl Jews manage to shelter themselves from this reality, and at the same time mirror it within them. Perhaps hinting at the fact that the different actors in the actual events of this war were all humans after all, and that as such could take on the role of perpetrator or victim according to how they were predisposed, but also the fact that as humans we are able to transcend our predispositions and keep our humanity even in the hardest of situations.   

This film undertakes a very daring inversion of the symbols of the Holocaust, and creates a microcosm where a deportation train might take you to safety, where you will be escorted by SS troops who are your friends and neighbors, and the final destination is the Promised Land. Even when a group of alleged SS troops attempts to stop the ghost train and one expects a gloomy end to this adventure, it turns out that the SS were in fact a village of gypsies who were deporting their own village and wanted to make use of the train. A kind of Jewish Gypsy cultural exchange festival ensues where the shtetl rabbi is confronted with sensual dances and non-kosher food.

The film offers the viewer alternate endings. At first it seems that the train has made it to the Russian front and is about to cross over to safety in the Soviet Union with bombs falling on both sides of the rolling train, and the Jews and gypsies on board dancing on the roof of the train. Indeed a happy end that was as unlikely as the entire movie. A fantastic end to a fantastic movie, which could have been a fitting end to send the viewer home with a smile, but it was not to be.

It seems that Mihăileanu understood that his movie could easily be misunderstood, that some viewers might leave the cinema with a somewhat distorted view of actual historical realities. Happy endings were by no means a common scenario. In fact, most European Jews did not survive the Holocaust. The monstrous system of terror and persecution set up by the Nazis and their collaborators in the different states was practically impossible to escape, leading to the death of an estimated six million Jews.

Mihăileanu came up with a creative solution to that issue with the last scene of the movie; portraying Schlomo dressed as a concentration camp prisoner behind barbed wire. Schlomo then breaks the third wall and tells the audience that the story was a fantasy. This bitter end might imply that Mihăileanu did not think he could “get away” with a holocaust comedy featuring a happy end.

Train of Life is an ode to human spirit as well as human weakness, where reality does not offer any way out and hallucinations are a form of inner resistance. It is by no means a historical document, nor does it try to portray itself as one. It is a bittersweet comedy about one of humanities darkest hours.

Eyal is a student in the M.A program Holocaust communications in Touro college Berlin who also offers tours of Jewish Berlin


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