** stars 103 minutes | Rated: R
In French with English subtitles
Opened: Friday, November 12, 1999
Written & directed by Radu Mihaileanu

Starring Lionel Abelanski, Rufus, Clement Harari, Michael Muller, Agathe de la Fontaine & Bruno Abrahams-Kremer

Village plan to escape Nazis via 'Train of Life' in low-brow, fairy tale farce

By Rob Blackwelder

Here comes another attempt to view the horrors of the Holocaust through a mix of comedy and poignancy, and brother, they just keep getting worse.

"Train of Life" is a grim but hopeful fairy tale set in a so-quaint-it-must-be-staged Eastern European village trapped in the path of the encroaching Nazi army.

Having heard horrible rumors about doomed trains to death camps, the town's cloistered Jewish community decides to make a run for it before the Germans come calling, and develop an elaborate plan to escape to Russia in a dilapidated train they've made over to look like a concentration camp transport.

By taking a fairy tale tack, French-Romanian writer-director Radu Mihaileanu absolves himself of patching up a plague of gaping plot holes regarding the sketchy details of such a plan -- which includes some members of the community reluctantly dressing up in makeshift Nazi costumes in case they're stopped while traversing occupied areas.

The film focuses instead on broad, traditional (read: shopworn) comedy and heavy-handed irony, which builds as the villagers playing German soldiers begin to usurp authority, leading to a revolt amongst the villagers playing deportees. One of the movie's chief foibles is that this clash is far more of a real threat to the band of escapees than the bumbling real Nazis they encounter from time to time.

The concept of using humor as an approach to keep stories of this darkest moment in modern human history fresh in the world's mind is not a bad idea, but it has yet to be done well, and I think it's time to give up.

Each of the three films in this genre has walked the tightrope of taste with amazing dexterity, but "Life Is Beautiful" was simplistic and wildly over-rated, "Jakob the Liar" was pretentious and dull, and "Train of Life" is far too dependent on antiquated stock characters (a village idiot?!?) and elementary, low-brow farce.

The movie's heart is in the right place. It celebrates Jewish tradition and has whimsical fun with its stereotypes and a silly subplot about a communist uprising in the boxcars. But its make-you-laugh, make-you-cry, sappy, spoon-fed sentiment has little substance. It feels like a non-confrontational version of its already meek predecessors.


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