M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   G U R E V I C H

Whatever you think of Costa-Gavras, his political colors have always been out in front, for everyone to see. He burst on the international scene with Z, a fictionalized story of the Greek coup d'etat, a passionate political thriller that was a fortunate convergence of the mind, the heart (he is of Greek origin), and filmmaking skills. Not one of his subsequent efforts (State of Siege, Missing, et al.) has been able to rise to the same level. The plots were from the headlines, the interpretation was strictly from The Nation, and little by little his directorial appeal faded.

On its face, Amen. (yes, there is an expressive full stop in the title) seems to fall into the same category: so the Vatican ignored the evidence of the Nazi murder camps and kept mum about the Holocaust. Was Amen. meant to be the Holocaust movie du jour? Wasn't it a little too late for le maitre to try to revive his career on this kind of material, with the kind of arguments that everybody stopped disputing long ago?

The answers are Yes and Yes. But perhaps because the film has a solid literary base -- Rolf Hochhuth's play Der Stellvertreter ("The Deputy") -- it becomes more than just another broadside against organized religion, both Protestant and Catholic. It becomes a reflection on personal responsibility in the face of evil.

Based on a real-life character, Kurt Gerstein is the mildest of men, a good family man, a chemist who passionately cares about social hygiene. He happens to be serving in the SS, but that seems merely an administrative quirk; so it is the SS's duty to keep Wehrmacht soldiers clean, healthy, and vermin-free with the help of a substance called Zyklon B. And so one day after cheerfully introducing soldiers to the joys of filtered water, Lt. Gerstein is invited to visit a "labor" camp and have a peek at the other effects of Zyklon B.

It is not a scene that requires a lot of imagination. It is even trivial to describe the horror solely through the expressions of those watching it. But Costa-Gavras puts the whole group of SS officers through the experience; as they peek through an eyehole in a door, none of the officers jump up and down with joy at the sight of hundreds of Jews dying. But only one SS officer steps back with incredulity on his face. He scans his colleagues' faces for signs of empathy.

Kurt Gerstein is a good German. He simply cannot believe that his people are capable of this. Just before the trip, he participated in a successful peaceful protest that made the Nazis suspend their execution of the disabled. So Gerstein goes on a warpath; unlike in a regular thriller, he doesn't employ various ruses to sabotage the exterminating effort. He's too straight for that. No, he simply appeals to the conscience of the German people (in a rather reckless fashion, I thought, for it doesn't seem as though the SS was monitoring its officers very carefully; by contrast, the KGB would have him executed in a day).

Gerstein buttonholes the Swedish consul, his own Protestant pastor, his fellow parishioners -- but no one believes him, or, rather, everyone fights hard not to believe. The acting is uniformly excellent: you see people confused, disturbed, grasping at explanations, one more ridiculous than another -- but no one can bring himself to believe that his fellow citizens are capable of acts of such barbarity. Desperate, Gerstein turns to the Vatican for help; the local nuncio turns him away, but the deputy, a young priest named Fontana, believes him.

Thus the film breaks off in three directions: Gerstein's increasing torment as he travels from camp to camp; Fontana's dogged efforts to break through the corridors of Vatican power; and the trains that intersperse the quests of the respective heroes. We see Gerstein aboard a train, catching a glimpse of a freight train steaming by, and we know where it's heading. Soon we'll see the train again, with its car doors wide open -- and we know what that means. Again, it is not a terribly surprising image -- of course in the year 1944 most of the travel was done by rail -- but it fell to Costa-Gavras to use this image in such striking fashion. With an exception or two, we don't see the victims directly, but we can never escape their presence.

Nowhere does Amen. reach the pathos and the artistry of Schindler's List, but on its own terms it is technically impeccable, especially the acting that I mentioned earlier: Ulrich Tukur, a German veteran stage actor, plays Gerstein as a striking Everyman, an epitome of decency in SS uniform -- and deeply religious, too. Often, Mathieu Kassovitz's intensity can be annoying, but here it fits Fontana, his character, especially at the end, where his exposure to the concentration camps changes the emotional pitch of his performance. (By underscoring both characters' faith, Costa-Gavras confines his anti-clerical fervor to organized religion and makes a nod towards individual belief).

All the scenes with SS staff are done to perfection: in the eyehole-watching scene, the officers act like a mafia family, practically forcing Gerstein to be a witness and thus an abettor of the crime; but then there's a "production meeting," where Costa-Gavras is doing triple axels on very thin ice, as his camp commanders bitch about deliveries and inefficiency and complain about unrealistic quotas they must meet, just like a group of Socialist directors tackling a five-year plan. But the film would be incomplete without its own Mephistopheles -- a character called simply "the Doctor" -- an SS officer who does not let Gerstein resign. Ulrich Mühe has delicate features and an ever-so-slight curl of the lip, and his Doctor has zero illusions about the cause or the outcome of the war. Perversely, he seems to keep Gerstein around not only because the latter is an excellent specialist, but also because he gets a kick out of observing his subordinate's pangs of consciousness. We are used to Jack Nicholsonian Hollywood devils, but Auschwitz is neither Eastwick nor West Village. It takes more than a pair of deranged eyebrows to convey the idea here, and Mühe delivers with exquisite panache. A villain like him is a credit to any film.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Kino


Photo credits: © 2002 Kino International. All rights reserved.