Impossible laughter

A comedy about the Holocaust? It sounds grotesque but it works, and it might turn out to be the unexpected hit of this year's Cannes film festival
June 19, 1998

There was no red carpet at the Cannes film festival for what may turn out to be the most daring film of this year's selection. Almost unheralded, The Train of Life steamed into the festival, destined to create a stir: a comedy about the Holocaust. Every reason to be apprehensive.

The film, by the French-Romanian Jewish director Radu Mihaileanu (it is only his second) tells the fantastic story of a Jewish village in eastern Europe organising its own fake deportation in an attempt to escape to Palestine via Russia.

The derelict components of a freight train with an old crock of an engine are bought singly, so as not to attract attention, while heaps of provisions are assembled and copies of the relevant German army uniforms are tailored for a detachment of guards and their officer.

As no one will volunteer to impersonate a German, the Council of Elders selects those most likely to pass muster and enlists a Viennese-born kinsman (now resident in Switzerland) to help them get rid of their Yiddish accent: "It's the same language really, except that to speak like a German, you take out the humour."

The rabbi's weak and foolish son is dispatched to the nearest big city, where a clandestine communist cousin will provide false papers for the fake Germans. To his father's disgust, the boy turns Bolshevik and sets up a communist cell. Another villager, sent to recruit a train driver who can be trusted, returns with the best he can find: a railway clerk who has always dreamt of driving a train.

The Train of Life is full of hilarious, dramatic, heartbreaking and absurd moments. At the screening I saw, the audience laughed heartily and the silences were electric.

Nothing about the film is realistic, neither its plot nor its tempo. Every character is a clich? with knobs on. Yet it throbs with truthfulness. The screen restores to life, in a manner no play, book or exhibition can, the idiosyncrasies and vitality of the shtetl.

When you watch a mountain goat from a distance, it seems to be leaping about casually in its own backyard. But when you look closely, you see that every foot is delicately poised on the only available piece of stone between the goat and the precipice below. Just so, Radu Mihaileanu has managed to negotiate the many pitfalls of his subject.

Not surprisingly, The Train of Life was even more difficult to finance than most films. It would be a pity if it were confined to a few posh art houses in London and to the university circuit. Admittedly, the film is in French and must be subtitled, but so were parts of Kes and Dances with Wolves. The Train of Life is a gem. Funny, subtle yet accessible-and moving. Spot on from start to finish.