One of the touchstones of the 20th Century was the Holocaust. It has
     been used as the backdrop and subject for films as diverse as documentaries
Night and Fog) and dramas (Schindler's List, The Pianist). While some may
     feel that the topic cannot possibly yield any more stories, I cannot disagree
     more. There are still people who claim that the Holocaust never occurred,
     others who downplay the events. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in the world,
     so any film or play or book or TV program that can raise awareness has
     some merit.

             The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has also come
     under fire from historians in recent years as documents are being
     declassified. While there are some who defend the actions of Pope
     Pius XII, German playwright Rolf Hochhuth squarely placed the blame at
     the pontiff's doorstep in his controversial 1965 play
Der Stellvertreter
     (The Deputy in the USA and The Representative in Great Britain).
     Hochhuth made a case that Pius' silence was a costly mistake; the Pope
     allegedly was more concerned with containing the threat of Communism
     than that of Nazism.

             Now, almost 30 years after its premiere, Hochhuth's drama serves
     as the basis for Costa-Gavras' intriguing if somewhat pedantic film
     Indeed, the film's poster -- designed by Oliviero Toscani and featuring a
     red cross/swastika and the photos of a Nazi officer and a priest, the two
     main characters of the piece -- provoked more discussion than the movie's
     subject matter. One, the SS officer Kurt Gerstein (played by Ulrich Tukur),
     was a real personage; the other, the Jesuit Ricardo Fontana (essayed by
     Matthieu Kassovitz) is a fictional character. While the poster actually        
     captures the themes of the drama, it is perhaps more arresting than the
     actual film.

             Costa-Gavras' screenplay (written with Jean-Claude Grumberg) is
     terribly schematic and betrays its stage roots. From the first scene which
     reenacts the suicide of Stephen Lux before delegates of the League of
     Nations in a bid to call attention to the Nazi atrocities,
Amen. announces
     its point; the cries of individuals regarding the plight of the Jews in
     German-controlled areas will be dismissed by those in positions of power.
     As the film unfolds, that does happen -- with a twist.

             The drama focuses on the personal struggle of Gerstein, the supplier
     of Zyclon B gas to the concentration camps. There's an effective moment
     when Gerstein peers through a peephole to see just how the gas is
     deployed. Wisely, Costas-Gavras opts not to show the horrors (which are
     familiar from so many other documentaries and films) but instead
     registers the shock and revulsion that Gerstein undergoes. In his
     attempt to get someone to listen, the Protestant Gerstein approaches
     the local Catholic bishops and is overheard by Father Fontana. The youthful
     cleric is moved by Gerstein's story and determines to inform the Pope
     himself, despite the dissuasion of his father and other priests.

             The film is handsomely shot in that way that many European
     productions are: impeccable set design, lush cinematography, terrific
     sound. As Gerstein, Tukur delivers a strong, nuanced performance that
     hints at the character's complexity that the script omits. Kassovitz
     projects the appropriate idealism and his final stand is moving, despite
     being somewhat predictable.

             Even with its flaws,
Amen. is a film that should be seen. It may
     not be as powerful as similarly-themed movies, but it does attempt
     to shed light on a corner of history that needs illumination.

                                Rating:                       C+
                                MPAA Rating:               None
                                Running time:              130 mins.


© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.