(director/writer: Costa-Gavras; screenwriter: Jean-Claude Grumberg/from the play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth; cinematographer: Patrick Blossier; editor: Yannick Kergoat; music: Armand Amar; cast: Ulrich Tukur (Kurt Gerstein), Mathieu Kassovitz (Father Riccardo Fontana), Ulrich Mühe (The Doctor), Michel Duchaussoy (The Cardinal), Ion Caramitru (Count Fontana), Marcel Iures (The Pope); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Claude Berri; Kino International; 2002)
“Though Costa-Gavras brings nothing new to the table about the Holocaust, he puts another nail down in the argument that the world could have acted but didn’t because of indifference.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Costa-Gavras (“Z“/”Missing“/”The Confession“), the controversial political 70-year-old filmmaker, raises questions about the Catholic Church’s failure to speak out against the Holocaust even though they knew exactly what was happening. The story is based on the 1963 play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth, a story taken from actual events. The political evil uncovered is not something new, but in its unflinching portrayal it bristles with a raw freshness. “Amen.” blurs the lines between art and entertainment, as the film is more informational and politically necessary than a work likely to entertain a mass audience.
The film centers around Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur, a stage actor from the former East Germany), a complex historical scientist figure whose eyewitness report was used as a document to verify the extermination camps. Gerstein was a chemical engineer and army lieutenant working on purifying the drinking water to stop the spread of typhus, when through his father’s connections with the Gestapo he was recruited by the Doctor (Ulrich Mühe) into the SS because of his chemical skills, and through the program’s success rose in status. He developed Zyklon B, the gas compound used in the Nazi extermination camps, as he naively thought this compound would only be used in the water.
At first Gerstein is an accepting though not enthusiastic Nazi soldier, believing he is helping the war effort as a patriotic duty. But soon witnesses the mentally handicapped exterminated by gas because they are unproductive citizens. This leads the Protestant Church to protest and threaten to make it known to the public. The Nazis cease the exterminations, as the Church argument that this is their worshipers being killed hits home. The Church protesters were only against such mercy killings, which alarmed the Nazis because they felt it would not be accepted by the public. When Gerstein learns that 10,000 Jews a day are being exterminated, his protests to the same Church leaders fall on deaf ears. The most concerned Church leader begs him to resign his SS post and remain silent to protect his family. Gerstein is further frustrated when he gets this info out to a Swedish diplomat to no avail and is rebuffed by the Vatican cardinal (Duchaussoy), who refuses to pass it on to the pope as he fears Nazi retributions. A young Jesuit priest named Father Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz, French actor-director) is in attendance and is moved by Gerstein’s findings. Riccardo is a fictionalized character, who is a composite of all the priests who rebelled against the Church and tried to help the victims in the name of Christianity.
Riccardo meets privately with Gerstein and plots to arrange a meeting with the pope in Rome to point out the genocide, as Gerstein volunteers to give an eyewitness detailed report. Through the efforts of Riccardo’s titled fathera friend of the pope and that Riccardo is the pope’s cousin, he’s granted an audience. But the pope is not interested in saving the Jews or even the converted Jews from being exterminated, as he makes it clear that the Church only aims to protect its own political interests.
This action sends Riccardo over the edge and he places a Jewish Star on his habit. As a result he’s rounded up and herded off in the cattle cars to a concentration camp, where his act of self-sacrifice brings him closer to his idealistic beliefs.
Gerstein continues in the SS because he feels the only way he can stop this madness is from the inside, as he tries to get word out to the Americans (who already know but also refuse to do anything) and to obstruct the extermination operation by slowing it down with technical mishaps. When Gerstein sees the Nazi end coming, he flees to the allies with his eyewitness report. But in the de-nazification process, the allies felt he was too involved with the death machines and is jailed. In their custody, he was either hung or committed suicide. He wasn’t cleared of the war crimes until 20 years later. In contrast, the slimy Doctor arranges with the cardinal for safe passage to Argentina. The cynical Doctor was a composite character of all those guilty parties the Vatican helped escape to South America.
Costa-Gavra’s film is not that stirring or dramatically effectual, but it effectively unmasks the perpetrators of this evil historical time and shows the thin line walked by those who were brave enough to mount some form of protest. What the film does best, is point out the moral deficiencies of both the church and the political leaders to do anything to halt the Holocaust. It shows with certainty that both Pius XII and the American ambassador both knew the Holocaust was taking place, but could care less. The Pope feared the Communists more than he did Hitler’s regime, and his prayers without actions seemed to make him out to be the ultimate religious hypocrite. Though Costa-Gavras brings nothing new to the table about the Holocaust, he puts another nail down in the argument that the world could have acted but didn’t because of indifference. It is sad to say that the reason so many died during the Holocaust is because as the film claims, there were so few who tried to do anything. The lessons are there for both the Church and America to learn something about themselves that still hasn’t changed. The church is still in denial about its covering up of pedophile priests and Bush’s America continues empire building that conveniently ignores human rights whenever it wants to.
REVIEWED ON 8/27/2003 GRADE: B https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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