A young Gestapo officer and a Catholic priest go head to head in a battle of wills in “The Ninth Day,” a thoughtfully written drama of ideas with vivid performances by August Diehl and Ulrich Matthes. First feature by German vet Volker Schloendorff since his belated return to form with “The Legends of Rita” (2000) is quality fare that won’t make much of a theatrical mark beyond upscale venues but should attract festival kudos (and discussion) and linger long on ancillary. It signals that Schloendorff, now in his mid-60s, is still a helmer to be reckoned with.
Based on a real-life memoir written in 1945 by Father Jean Bernard, a Luxembourg priest, pic deftly sketches the grim confines of Dachau, where Henri Kremer (Matthes) is one of almost 3,000 clergymen subjected to hard labor. Every now and then, the camp commander strings one of them up on a cross as an example to the others.
Kremer, imprisoned for his opposition to the Nazis’ racial laws, is suddenly plucked from this lice-infested hell and put on a train back to Luxembourg. Arriving in the German-occupied Duchy on Jan. 15, 1942 — the “first” day — he’s picked up by Gestapo officer Untersturmfuehrer Gebhardt (Diehl) and told to report to Gestapo HQs the next morning.
At his family’s home, Kremer discovers his mother has died. But still living are his well-connected brother, Roger (Germain Wagner), pregnant sister Marie (Bibiana Beglau, from “Rita”) and her milquetoast husband, Raymond (Jean-Paul Raths). Kremer has no idea why he’s been released.
He soon finds out. Gebhardt tells Kremer he’s on release for only nine days, during which time Kremer must use his influence with Bishop Philipp (Hilmar Thate) to get him to write a letter promising the Luxembourg church’s co-operation with the Nazis. Berlin wants to drive a wedge between the local church and the Vatican, but, so far, the bishop has refused even to meet the Gestapo.
If Kremer tries to escape, the 18 Luxembourg priests in his Dachau block will be executed. What Kremer isn’t told is that if Gebhardt doesn’t succeed in getting Kremer to have the letter written, the German officer will be transferred back to duty in East Europe’s concentration camps.
The battle of wills between the young Nazi and older priest moves through theological discourse, via veiled threats, to a situation where both their futures are poised on the edge. One of the film’s pleasures is that Gebhardt is not a textbook cinematic Nazi: He was within two days of being ordained as a Catholic priest before switching his career path to the Gestapo.
The men’s conversations are thus about two vastly differing views of Christianity. For Gebhardt, Christianity is a bastion against the godless Bolsheviks and a warning against the danger of “the Jew within oneself”; for Kremer, the decision to collaborate or not becomes one that his faith seems inadequate to deal with.
Performances at every level, from Beglau as Kremer’s devoted sister to Goetz Burger as the bishop’s weasily assistant, are spot on, but it’s Diehl and Matthes who power the movie. Diehl is especially good as the tight-faced Gestapo officer, concealing a host of personal horrors. Matthes makes Kremer less approachable, but his hollow face and staring eyes are uncomfortably realistic.
To its enormous credit — and reflecting Schloendorff’s own agnosticism — pic maintains a real objectivity in its handling of the complex religious material, and rarely pushes any of the usual emotional buttons this genre is heir to. Tomas Erhart’s chiaroscuro lensing, processed in bleached, cold colors, plus resonant extracts from chamber works by Alfred Schnittke (Cello Concerto No. 1, Concerto Grosso No.1), keep the emotional temperature as cool as the overcast, wintry weather outside. Pic was shot in Czech Republic, Germany and Luxembourg, and period authenticity is high.