The word whimsical” seems out of place when describing a story set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, yet the 1999 Paramount Classics film, “Train of Life” indeed is a whimsical treatment of a serious topic. In fact, there are many humorous scenes. The humor is not about Nazis or the Holocaust—but about life and especially about the absurdities that survival requires. In French with English subtitles, the movie has a surreal quality owing to its implausible plot and some “Fiddler on the Roof”-style musical interludes.
The film opens with a brief narration from Shlomo the Fool, played by Lionel Abelanski. The story then unfolds as Shlomo races to his Eastern European shtetl with news that the Nazis will soon be upon them.
To survive, the fool and the village wise men come up with a scheme whereby the would-be victims enact their own deportation in order to avoid the real thing. Rather than waiting for the Nazis to put them on a death train bound for the camps, they put themselves on a “train of life” bound for Eretz Yisrael. They purchase their escape vehicle, wagon by wagon, and manage to camouflage the mezuzot under the trappings of Nazi paraphernalia.
The villagers end up believing their own fabrication which, to some degree, makes them victims. For example, some (including the bogus commander) are forced to masquerade as Nazis in order to deal with German soldiers along the way. The “commander” is treated as an outcast by his own people while he lays his life on the line for them in confrontations with real Nazis. Meanwhile, the jilted would-be lover of the village beauty, Esther, meets a communist in passing and he forms his own communist coalition on the train. He knows about as much about communism as the “engineer” knows about driving a train. (The latter got the job because he worked for the department of transportation and filched a manual, which he is frantically studying through most of the journey.)
The movie demonstrates, through the use of absurd pretenses, what can happen when people start believing their own illusions.
Shlomo is the transcendent figure in the film. Thus, he is never shown riding in the train, but always on it. To him, the plan is never anything but the who-knows-it-just-might-work idea of the village fool. He is free from whatever goes on inside the train. He is alone, yet he holds the group together. He is the optimist, peacemaker and comforter who offers the community a plan of escape from the Nazis and, when necessary, from the internal differences which occasionally threaten to divide the community. Shlomo isn’t fooled by pretend Nazis or pretend communists. He is a philosopher and a humanist and somehow when he speaks, he makes sense to people. He is an almost magical figure and somehow because of him, one unlikely and, yes, very humorous thing after another continues to happen on the train of life.
It may sound as though the film makes light of a terribly grave situation. Yet the film deals honestly with the tragedy of the Holocaust in a powerful (yet totally non-violent) way. Explaining how would detract from the overall experience of this very creative and provocative film.
(Note: if you plan to rent this video, be aware that there are some brief sexual situations that include partial nudity.)