One evening in 1941, the dwellers of a shtetl (Jewish village) in Eastern Europe see Schlomo the Idiot arrive with appalling news: the Germans are massacring the inhabitants of the nearby shtetls and deporting the survivors to an unknown destination. Soon the same fate will be theirs. That night, the village elders meet to discuss how to save their community. In the small hours of the morning, the answer comes from the mouth of Schlomo himself: to escape from the Nazis, they’ll run a fake deportation train! By playing the role of deportees, train engineers and Germans all at once, they will get through the German checkpoints and reach the Promised Land.
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I happened to be in Los Angeles when Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ came out. Seeing it, I felt two reactions: great emotion, and a strong conviction that the story of the Shoah couldn’t always go on being told in the same way, in the register of tears and horror. Back home in Paris, a historian friend got to talking over dinner about some Jews who escaped on a train during the war, an almost incredible story. He urged me to make a film about it, a somber story about my roots and people. ‘A comedy!’ I answered. He was taken aback. But I felt that the combination of comic and tragic would have an extraordinary effect. I had a hunch that this was the way I had to go. (Radu Mihaileanu)