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
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 Amen.
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
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.
MPAA Rating: None
Running time: 130 mins.
|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.