The latest political suspenser from Costa-Gavras tackles exceedingly weighty themes which, 60 years after the events depicted, still cause heated debate. The burning question of why the Allies and the Catholic Church did so little to prevent the Holocaust is revisited in this extremely polished adaptation of Rolf Huchhuth’s 1963 play, “The Representative,” and yet, despite fine performances and the care lavished on the production, “Amen.” is never as emotionally powerful as it should be. Pic is likely to stir pro and con reactions in Europe and to do moderate-to-good business, but is less likely to perform well in other territories, unless it receives critical accolades. Ancillary is more promising.
Costa-Gavras has frequently challenged filmgoers with political films that explored uncomfortable themes: the assassination of a Greek leftist in “Z” (1969), the torture of Communists by Communists in Czechoslovakia in “The Confession” (1970), CIA complicity in the coup in Chile in “Missing” (1981) and others. In his most successful films, the political themes were given a heart and soul by strong personal stories (“Missing” being a prime example); but more often the crusading director sidelines the human element while concentrating on more academic questions, and this is the problem with “Amen.”
The film features two heroes, one real, one fictitious. The real-life character is Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), an SS officer and chemist. He specialized in the decontamination of water as a preventative cure for typhoid and came to the attention of the men in charge of the concentration camps who were looking for a more cost-friendly method of mass extermination.
Gerstein, a family man and a Christian, was at first unaware of how his chemicals, mainly Zyclon B, a poison gas, were being implemented. But then he is taken to Poland and sees how the gas is used to slaughter Jews in Auschwitz. He’s horrified by the matter-of-fact slaughter and the way Nazi officials talk about the problem of eliminating 11 million-12 million “units,” which, they say, has to be completed by 1948. (“In 1949, we’ll deal with the rest of the world,” says one smug Nazi, “and in 1950 we’ll take a sabbatical.”)
Gerstein’s protests are treated with pitying condescension; he is told that he should be happy that his gas will reduce the agony of the victims to only five minutes. But his conscience forces him to try to do something, even though he is told that the majority of the pastors and members of his church are supportive of Hitler. While outwardly pretending to carry on his work, and quietly achieving acts of minor sabotage to delay shipments of gas, Gerstein attempts to alert the outside world.
He makes contact with the Swedish Embassy in the hope that the news can be brought to the Allies; and he approaches the Papal Nuncio in Berlin, who doesn’t take him seriously (“It’s just Gestapo provocation,” he tells an aide. “Imagine an SS officer defending the Jews”). But one man who does listen is Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a young Jesuit with excellent connections inside the Vatican.
But the politics of Vatican diplomacy aren’t receptive to Riccardo’s passionate pleas for the Pope to denounce the slaughter of the Jews. Though constantly assured that the Holy Father holds Hitler in “very low esteem,” Stalin is seen as the bigger enemy, and the Church is reluctant to speak against Hitler until he has defeated the Soviets.
The Americans are no more receptive. When Riccardo claims that thousands of Jews are being exterminated daily, an American envoy advises him to speak in hundreds, or he’ll simply not be believed. And the American ambassador is more concerned with winning the war than saving Jews. And, anyway, what would be done with them? If the Jews of Europe were relocated to the U.S. it would, he avers, cause social unrest and anti-Semitism.
But as Gerstein takes more risks, even traveling to Rome in a vain attempt to see the Pope (his visit coincides with the rounding up of Roman Jews by the Nazis) and as Riccardo makes the ultimate gesture by attaching a yellow star to his cassock and voluntarily joining the victims on a train to the camps, the outside world seems even less willing to listen. The film concludes with some cruel and tragic ironies that leave the viewer with plenty of food for thought.
Despite the high drama and personal sacrifice that the film depicts against a background of the greatest crimes of the 20th century, “Amen.” fails to engage on an emotional level. This is partly because Costa-Gavras resolutely refuses to show any of the horrors; when Gerstein looks through a window into the gas chamber, we are never shown what he sees. True, these images have been burnt into our collective consciousness, but in pulling its punches the film drops the emotional ball. There’s an academic, at times even theatrical, air about the film, and the supporting characters mostly come across as ciphers rather than flesh and blood human beings.
There’s also no indication of the passing of time, which might have been helpful, especially for young audiences whose sense of the history of the period is sketchy. The film opens in 1936 with the suicide of a young Jew before the League of Nations in protest of what washappening in Germany, but thereafter there’s little indication of the year.
Tukur successfully conveys the inner torment of the SS officer who, for the safety of his family, is forced to campaign in secret against his colleagues and friends, while Kassovitz vividly portrays the young idealist’s increasing desperation as he sees that his connections at the Vatican are of little help in this time of extreme crisis. Without exception, the other members of a very large cast acquit themselves well, with Ulrich Muhe particularly good as Gerstein’s doctor friend.
Lavishly produced pic was shot in Romania and Italy. Camerawork by Patrick Blossier is on the functional side, but the work of production designer Ari Hantke is flawless in every respect. Music score by Armand Amar is intrusive at times, especially the relentlessly jaunty theme used to accompany repeated images of steam trains crisscrossing the continent with their tragic cargo.