Radu Mihaileanu’s 1999 award winning movie, “Train of Life,” is a metaphor for the resilience of the human spirit and the desire to be free with a decidedly anti-communist and anti-Nazi message.
Art imitates life in a series of comedic one-liners describing a very serious topic, the deportation of the Jews to the concentration camps during World War II. But it is a fairy tale with a twist. An entire shtetl (village) in Eastern Europe is self-deporting to the Promised Land, Eretz, Israel, via Ukraine – Russia – Palestine, in the year 5701 (1941) on the advice of the “crazy” village fool, Shlomo Rothschild.
The Nazis (National Socialists) have arrived beyond the mountains, deporting Jews, “God knows where,” entire villages are never heard of again and the Rabbi must save his own flock by any means necessary even though it is “a sin to dress up like a Nazi.”
The unnecessary cruelty of man against man is evident in the naïve and innocent question, why would anyone want to kill us, we are nice people and some Germans are nice people. Why don’t they stop them?
“Let the Germans deport us! Let them sweat! Why make it easy for them?” But the Wise Men decide to buy a fake train, supplies, fake documents, tailor German uniforms, and train 30 Jews to be German soldiers and 5 to be officers.
Mordechai Schwarts, the wood merchant, who speaks German and understands German culture, is chosen to be the commander of the train. The locomotive with the 8 wagons has seen better days but, with love, paint, and major repairs, the train is ready to chug along once they find an engineer. Yenkele, the accountant, objects vociferously to the purchase price of 10,000 and the leather seats in the commander’s wagon.
Israel Schmecht, the local writer, teaches the fake Nazi soldiers how to speak German in a precise, dry, and humorless manner. The Rabbi jokes that maybe that’s the reason the world is at war with the Germans, “we make fun of their language.”
A wise woman, unhappy with the idea of leaving their village and homes behind, and with her fellow Jews dressed as shameful Nazis who carry guns, laments on the wisdom of God who lets “men run the world, with a fool to lead them.”
The non-Jewish neighbors are worried that “their Jews” are leaving and they will lose their businesses. The real Germans are burning down their village, their homes and possessions.
The local beauty, Esther, is pursued by many, including Sammy, Mordechai’s rich son, which she prefers, Shlomo, who confesses his love for her, and Yoselle (Yossi), the commune’s young communist agitator. The Rabbi advises everyone to avoid the wayward Yossi because his craziness is contagious. All he talks about is the communist slogan, “Men and women of the world, unite!”
Preaching communism, Yossi, who has shaven his traditional beard, talks about the New Man, enchanting his hapless and rapt audience with the secret Messiah who has arrived and is going to make all men equal and workers, but nobody knows yet who the illusory Messiah is, “it is a code name so he does not get arrested.” But we are not workers, says one, we are Jews.
We revolutionaries stay undercover, said Yossi, we “lurk in the shadows, confronting danger, we’re incognito, stowaways, clandestine, utopians, adventurers.” The Rabbi had had enough and challenges his ridiculous description calling him a “proletarian good for nothing,” rabble rouser.
Finally a train engineer is found – the shoeless Shtrul Goitzl who works at the Archives, has never driven a train before, but is able to find a manual, “How to Drive a Locomotive.” The locomotive is an absolute piece of junk held together by rust, presented as good as new – once it’s painted red, it will go around the world. The accountant with an ulcer faints.
And so they embark on the train of survival in the middle of the night, each taking with them their most precious possessions. The village fool Shlomo wraps two pebbles carefully in a white handkerchief, symbolizing love for his ancient village, his deep roots, and the hardship ahead.
Past midnight, the children of Abraham and Moses pray one last time and, with fear, joy, anticipation, and faith in their hearts, climb aboard. With a shrill whistle of the engine, the train moves into the night, into the scary and shadowy darkness.
The chugging train has eight cars (wagons), six of which are cattle cars like those that took Jews, gypsies, and other innocents to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau.
The next morning, the mail man arrives with accountant Yenkele’s loan approval but the village is empty, papers flying in the wind in the deserted streets. The mailman is assured that they will come back – Jews are family people, they will “return to their roots.”
Yossi the Marxist, continues his indoctrination on the train. “The poor should be rich and the rich should be poor because it is not their fault that the poor are born poor.” But is it not their fault that they stayed poor?
One young man tells Yossi that he will become a communist when he can keep his side-locks and his faith. That is of course, not permitted, the New Man has to be different than the Old Man. As he continues offering empty promises, Yossi names Sammy their Soviet ideologist. Sammy declines on account that he has not read Marx but Yossi confesses that neither had he.
The first station they pass identifies them as a ghost train; the underground resistance plans to blow up the tracks, mistaking them for a real Nazi train, taking Jews to the gas chambers. Without a timetable, it is almost certain they will not be able to pass the next station unless they detour. Eli Grossman, the chess champion, suggests a route detour to avoid detection.
The engineer, full of sweat and oil, wipes his brow of a stray underground resistance flyer that hit his face in the wind – he now has a large black ink Nazi emblem emblazoned squarely on his forehead.
They barely avoid a collision with an oncoming train, the resistance is not sure if they should blow them up or not, while the Germans are loading up troops to search and destroy the abandoned village.
Yossi the Marxist is stirring up trouble, demanding better accommodations for his followers. They want Mordechai’s car and bed. A fascist Nazi should not sleep in better quarters than communists, he says. When the Rabbi defuses the tension by promising everyone beds in Palestine, Yossi laments in typical projective psychology, “Beware of empty promises. The bells of a new era are tolling.”
The resistance fighters decide to let them go unharmed. The train struggles into the night like a sick patient taking a labored and rhythmic breath, trying to stay alive.
A Grandmother soothes her grandchild with stories of “Palestine, an earthly Paradise, with gardens, brooks, animals, birds, and treasures underneath the sand.” In reality, she is holding the fairy tale book, “Little Red Riding Hood.” The symbolism is ever present. The child wonders, “We’ll never make it
When the train stops for Shabbat, Yossi, the communist, advises his flock not to pray, “We are not doing Shabbat, we are Marxist-Leninist materialists now! The Messiah has come! God doesn’t exist!”
A fight ensues as Mordechai, the fake German officer, attacks Yossi, the commie materialist traitor. “Come pray and let the others pray too! You’ll corrupt the children! Dirty communist!”
Shlomo, the “fool,” gets in the middle and embarks on a philosophical monologue on God, man, and creation, concluding with the question “whether we exist.” Shabbat shalom! Did you understand that? One elder responds in total confusion, “God is not sure whether man exists!” To which the Rabbi answers with aplomb, “What am I, a monkey?”
After a series of comedy of errors, the movie ends on the Eastern front with bombs flying around the train in both directions. Shlomo narrates, “Once in the Soviet Union, everyone espoused the communist cause; some went to Palestine, mostly the gypsies, others went to India, mostly the Jews. Shtrul went to China where he became stationmaster. Beautiful Esther went to America and had lots of beautiful children. That’s the true story of my shtetl. Well, almost true.”
As the camera pans out, Shlomo is behind the wired fence of a concentration camp. Was it all true? The story kept him alive, the folly of the train of life.