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BEAUTIFUL MADNESS:
Radu Mihaileanu Talks About His New Film, "Train of Life"

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Can three movies a genre make? If they can, then "Train of Life" is the third and perhaps the best of the "Holocaust Comedy" genre, after "Life Is Beautiful" (1998) and "Jakob the Liar" (1999). "Train of Life" tells the audacious story of a village, led by village idiot Shlomo (Lionel Abelanski), which decides to evade the Nazis by building a train, disguising themselves as guards and prisoners, and deporting themselves. But instead of traveling to a death camp, they'll be crossing the border into freedom. As directed by Radu Mihaileanu, "Train of Life" plays like a lively farce, full of fun and life, but at the same time tainted with the horror of reality. Yet, there are virtually no gory images of Nazis and death camps. Their terror merely hangs in the air. "Train of Life" is a delightful 'what if' story that gives Us a little power over Them.

Mihaileanu was in town recently for the Mill Valley film festival, and I had a chance to speak with him about the new film. Born in Romania, under Causescu's power, Mihaileanu speaks five languages, and considers himself a citizen of the world, although his home base is in France. "My real house are my kids. If my kids will move, that will be my new house."

In making "Train of Life", Mihaileanu looked in six different countries for his amazing cast. "I knew that I needed a real family. I chose people by people, actor by actor, seeing how they were together. They all speak French for the film, but in reality, we were speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, French, English. The other language was the language of the friendships. There were so many love stories during the shooting." Indeed, the cast formed such strong friendships that it caused trouble during the shoot. "The Rabbi was a guy (Clement Harari) who was 80 years old, had some problems with memories. He had the biggest lines in the film and was sometimes forgetting his lines. Many times I had to stop, not just because of him, but I had to cut to say, 'I see your mouths doing his lines. You cannot do that. All the audience will see that.' They were so friendly with him, praying that he will get his lines, that they learned the lines and saying them at the same time."

Mihaileanu defends his choice of the village idiot as a hero with a specific logic. "We need those kinds of crazy people which have a different point of view and who pushes people. Our brain is so tremendous. It's a big universe we have, each of us, in our head. Why not use it? Why not use it to be richer? When all the tourists come to Paris, they all take the same picture; In the middle of the Champs-Elysees, which the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe behind it. That's very sad because in the world there has to be 3 billion pictures of exactly the same frame. So for me the point is the guy who goes on another side of the Champs-Elysees where he sees a little poor guy asking for money when all the rich people are passing. That is for me the Champs-Elysees."

Because of this, "the first monologue of Shlomo is very important. His vision of the holocaust is completely different from the other visions we hear today: they killed people, they tortured people, they get put in the camps. Shlomo says, 'it's awful what I saw. The birds don't want to walk with us anymore. They flew away because they are ashamed of the human beings.'"

It's easy to see how Mihaileanu came up with the idea for "Train of Life" with his beautifully skewed vision of the world. He describes the scene in which the Jews board their new train. In opposition to the newsreel footage we've seen of Jews being slowly herded onto trains, Mihaileanu presents the opposite. "The perfect thing would be to go in the train slowly and sadly. In reality, they are screaming, 'get a good place! Get a good place by the window! Get a good place for Grandma and Grandpa!' I try to build a wonderful imperfect people, and I love this humanity because they are imperfect. And we are always fighting against the Nazis who think they are perfect and are trying to make us perfect like them. When you go the airport in Israel, there's no queue (line). I was on holidays with my kids this summer. Everyone tried to go in first. Because it was 4 o'clock on Friday, and they try to get to Shabat. I said, 'look I have kids. They are thirsty, they are hungry.' They said, 'we don't care. We want to be the first.' It's the beauty of the humanity that we are not robots. We are not good or bad. We are both."

Mihaileanu's youth in Romania was a world in which it was understood by everyone that the survivors must leave. "They didn't tell me, 'you have to leave because you're Jewish, because Romania is a very hard country, because Ceausescu is completely nuts,' or stuff like that. But I knew in an unconscious way that I had to learn languages and I learned several languages without knowing where I would have to live. The way they educate us. My father put me on a train at four years old, saying 'you have to go in that village. Somebody will wait for you in that village. But you have to travel alone.' He was in the train. I didn't know that. But he wanted me to manage my life alone. So that helps me a lot when I have to leave. Because I was used to being alone, even if I knew that I was very loved, which is very comfortable on one side, but on the other side, I knew that my destiny was to leave."

Mihaileanu sums up his philosophy with a story of the painter Chagall. "I imagine poor Chagall in his little village at the beginning of the century. When he painted a neighbor flying above the house. The guy says, 'you're completely mad! I never fly.' And he says, 'that's my vision. Because you're not flying but your mind is flying. That's why I paint you like that.' In each poetry you have a part of reality. Because the poetry and the madness, that beautiful madness, comes from the reality."

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