This review was corrected on May 13, 2003.
An intricately constructed tale of loyalty and betrayal under mitigating circumstances, “Epstein’s Night” is theatrical but gripping. Three childhood friends who survived a WW2 concentration camp must decide whether a faintly familiar-looking man they encounter decades later was an SS officer who helped to inflict the emotional scars they still bear. Suspenseful yarn built of complex loyalties, motivations and sacrifices is a must for Jewish fests and selected hardtop play.
After 10 years in prison, Jochen Epstein (Mario Adorf), an elderly Jew, returns to his Berlin apartment. Enter an old woman (Annie Girardot), who reminds the baffled Epstein that he once hired a lawyer to find her: so here she is – Hannah Liebermann. As teenagers, nearly 60 years ago, they had both been prisoners at Birkenau camp.
Bulk of story takes place some 10 years before Hannah’s reappearance. Three Jews – tall, robust Epstein and his more delicate, intellectual best friends, the Rose brothers – decide to hold a Christmas party for their gentile neighbors. While Karl Rose (Otto Tausig) greets the guests, Adam Rose (Bruno Ganz) and Jochen drive the caterer’s young daughter to a church in nearby Spandau, where she performs in the choir.
Jochen becomes convinced that Father Groll (Gunter Lamprecht), the parish priest there, is none other than Geisser, an SS guy who ruined their lives at Birkenau. Shaken, he storms out of the church and shares his discovery with Karl, who’s a lawyer. Latter argues that they all saw Geisser’s name on a list of the dead. Furthermore, says Karl, how could Geisser have escaped notice all these years even if he had survived?
The sensitive, childlike Adam, who single-mindedly wants to know what became of his first and only love – Hannah – pockets Karl’s gun and slips back to the church to confront Father Groll before Mass the next morning. When Karl realizes Adam is missing, he and Jochen drive to the church, where a high-stakes game of verbal chess ensues. Is Groll, as he claims, simply a former political prisoner who’s been a priest for 40 years?
Beautifully written and keenly played drama packs an emotional wallop. Though not as indelible as Fons Rademakers’ “The Assault,” pic is similarly rich in puzzle-pieces that click into place decades after WW2, finally explaining to haunted souls why their lives were forever changed. Perfs are excellent, although dubbing of French thesp Girardot into German is only approximate. Use of both music and silence is judicious.