Amen

This is the true story of a German SS officer and chemist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukor), who learns the Zyklon B pellets he developed to purify the soldiers’ drinking water is being used to gas Jews in the concentration camps. Gerstein is taken to a camp and is horrified by what he witnesses. (The officers are seen looking through peepholes to the gas chamber). After that, Gerstein unsuccessfully tries to alert the Allies but is ignored. The only one who believes him is an Italian Priest, Riccardo Fontana (French actor-director Matthieu Kassovitz, whose Hungarian Jewish grandparents survived the holocaust). Together they lead a crusade against the concentration camps, and try to inform the Pope of the atrocities.

Costa-Gavras’ intelligent, complex film, is told from the point of view of the Germans, in contrast to Roman Polanski’s remarkable “The Pianist,” which is from the victim’s viewpoint. “Amen” was adapted by the director and co-writer Jean-Claude Grumberg, from a play about Gerstein called “The Deputy”. Costa-Gavras made the film in English using German actors whose accents are often hard to understand. In addition, there is a lot of background noise making the dialogue even harder to hear. (Hopefully there will be a DVD released. This will make the dialogue easier to understand since the subtitles can be turned on.) The film assumes you know a lot of World War II history and, because of this, can be hard to follow for younger viewers. I think the use of a timeline, which was effective in “The Pianist,” would make the film more coherent. Still, “Amen” nicely builds tension towards its climax.

“Amen” is artfully crafted and uses subtle visuals to convey important ideas. Trains are shown criss-crossing the countryside throughout the film. Cars with the doors closed convey trains going into the camps full of people and cars with the doors open are the empty trains coming back from the camps. To show the passage of time and the war moving towards its conclusion, the number of Gerstein’s children are seen increasing from one (with his wife pregnant) to four by the end of the film. The burning of the Jews in the crematoriums is briefly shown in a smokestack blowing black smoke out its chimney. One of my favorite shots in “Amen” is the reflection of fires from the Nazis’ burning of mass graves in the passenger window of the car driving Gerstein away from the camps. These are all chilling images which stood out in my mind long after the film ended.

Costa-Gavras, like Polanski, is not interested in sentimentality. “Amen” is a metaphor for what he sees as crimes of indifference to all atrocities past, future, and present. He views that indifference as a form of complicity. This film depicts the Church as mostly involved in its own self-preservation. In an early scene, the German Catholic Church publicly criticizes the euthanasia of unproductive citizens, after a group of retarded children are gassed. Their protests brought this practice to a halt. But these people were Catholics and that is why the Church spoke out. However, the church turns a deaf ear to Gerstein’s and Father Riccardo’s pleas to help put a stop to the extermination of Jews. Gerstein provides documents and maps detailing the mass executions but is unsuccessful at convincing anyone to try and stop the atrocities. Anyone who listens to Gerstein rebuffs his claim that 10,000 Jews a day were being killed. One of the forms of denial depicted in “Amen” was disputing of the scope of the killings. One character tells Gerstein he should say a few hundred a day are being killed if he wants to be believed. When Father Riccardo is finally able to speak to the Pope and tell him of the situation at the camps, the Pope only says he will pray for them. Father Riccardo is assured by the Vatican that the Pope will speak out in his Christmas Mass but the speech was bland and vague.

A bit of background on the Vatican’s quandary is helpful here. The Pope hated Hitler and the Nazis, but he hated Communists in Stalinist Russia even more. Their rationale for not opposing Hitler more was that Hitler was fighting Stalin. In addition, the Pope feared the Nazis attacking them if they denounced Hitler. To complicate matters further, Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany in World War II until Mussolini’s Fascist government fell in 1943.

While Gerstein was a real person, Father Riccardo was a composite of the priests who protested against the Holocaust. Another character was created for the film, “The Doctor,” a cynical, cruel senior SS officer who recruits Gerstein to help streamline the process of the exterminations. He is a doctor serving death. Gerstein is reluctant to help him and tries to slow down the death camp killings. “The Doctor” and Father Riccardo meet in one of the final scenes of “Amen.” The film’s ironic title comes from their meeting. “The Doctor” tells Father Riccardo:

“The Church has shown that purification can be achieved by burning people. Nazism is just doing the same thing but on a bigger scale. In a way we are the new chosen people.” “Amen,” Father Riccardo replies solemnly.

To Costa-Gavras and co-screenwriter Grumberg, “Amen” is a film about history. The director said history is “a bitter and painful irony, of course. Because this irony exists within history itself. Take the rescue of the Nazis by the Roman networks…Some of these people were taken in by the United States, others by the USSR. They sold their know-how and had careers. Klaus Barbie held an official position for years, in Latin America. It’s the recycling and use of their know-how.”

“Amen” requires an attentive viewer because of the subtle way the story is told. Costa-Gavras’ intellectual approach to this emotional subject does not make for Hollywood-type melodrama, although the film is noteworthy from a historical and moral perspective. Gerstein and Father Riccardo were two conscientious people who fought against injustice in the face of overwhelming indifference and opposition. “Amen” will be particularly relevant to those with an interest, either directly or indirectly, in the holocaust, and should attract its share of general audiences.

For more information on Kurt Gerstein go to this site.

Rating: B+
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