Germany-Romania-France (2002) Dir. Costa-Gavras
Word War II and chemist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) joins the SS party in the belief that his water purification process, which uses a hydrogen cyanide mixture called Zyklon B, will help the soldiers on the frontline. However he is appalled to learn that it instead has been adapted for use in gassing Jewish prisoners in extermination camps. Gerstein tries to protest but no-one in the SS is wiling to budge. He attempts to inform Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iureş) about the gassings, only to hit another brick wall of resilience from all levels of the church hierarchy. The only person who takes Gerstein’s complaint seriously is a young Jesuit priest Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), taking up the fight on Gerstein’s behalf with similarly poor results.
Based on the 1963 play by The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy (aka Der Stellvertreter) by Rolf Hochhuth, this Holocaust film is mostly fiction although Kurt Gerstein did exist. The now (in)famous Gerstein Report was written in 1942 after Gerstein witnessed first hand the death of thousands of Jews using his creation in Belzec, Poland, and was intended to highlight the callousness and danger of this horrific programme as well as prevent any further deaths to anyone who would listen including the church and the allies. This made him rather unpopular with the Nazis and died in 1945 after an alleged suicide in a French prison, condemned as war criminal.
Amen. expands the story of the lack of support Gerstein receives from the church and paints a bleak picture of their shockingly dismissive attitude by adding Fontana, said to be composite of the various priests who openly opposed the Nazis during the war. While Gerstein is trying to out manoeuvre his fellow SS members, most notably “the Doctor” (Ulrich Mühe), Fontana struggles to even get the support of his own father (Ion Caramitru) let alone his superiors at the church, one of whom admitted to getting sick of the whining Jews!.
Fontana eventually gets an audience with the Pope after the aforementioned hindrance but the official line seems to be that the word of an SS officer can’t be trusted, not to mention the church would lose face if they did pay heed to it. Deciding to make a positive gesture, Fontana adds a Jewish star to his cassock, adding extra pressure to Gerstein’s mission to bring an end to the Final Solution programme after learning of his associate’s interment at the hand of his party.
France based Greek director Costa-Gavras clearly felt this was an important tale to share with us and while he delivers a rather chilling and frustrating yarn, there is no denying that his vision is very black and white when it comes to depicting the church. This caused some outcry among Catholics and Jewish communities for its portrayal of the Pope and the apparent lack of action on this serious matter, along with the movie poster which shows a composite of a crucifix and a Nazi swastika. It is the constant obstructions that Gerstein and Fontana face from all corners which make this a frustration viewing experience.
In one scene Fontana interrupts a meal including several church members, foreign dignitaries and his father where he shows them a map of the locations of the various execution camps. Their reaction? Shrug it off and keep on eating their expensive meal. Even in this fictionalised setting there is no room given for redemption for the church once the credits roll.
Even with the lack of balance in the script, the film has your attention from the get go and the plight of Gerstein and Fontana is an easy one to sympathise with. Both leads ensure the audience is on their side with their empathetic performances, effortlessly taking their characters through a morally testing journey, while the late Ulrich Mühe, of The Lives Of Others fame, seems almost too at home playing the unscrupulous and cold blooded doctor.
With the dialogue spoken entirely in English, Amen. gives itself a better chance of wider exposure than other World Cinema films, which it deserves given the subject matter. This fascinating story, despite the lopsided approach towards the church, is told in an accessible and compelling way and presents another unique look at a tragic period in world history.