The complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust has been a hot potato ever since Rolf Hochhuth’s 1964 play “The Deputy” scandalized people, especially Catholics, by suggesting that Pope Pius XII avoided condemning the tragedy (of which he knew much) for reasons of realpolitik tinged by anti-Semitism.
The famous tosser of movie Molotovs, Costa-Gavras (“Z,” “The Confession,” “State of Siege”) has done “Amen.,” a free adaptation with Jean-Claude Grumberg. They break from the stage to make a big historical canvas on which themes stand out vividly.
Like Hochhuth, Costa-Gavras is not a force for subtlety, but he has made an absorbingly rich and sad film.
Ulrich Tukur, an utterly human actor, plays chemist Kurt Gerstein, expert in the gasses used to kill people. At the war’s start, he thinks he is a military sanitation specialist. In a rending scene, he is invited to stare through a peephole into one of the early gassing sheds, and nearly faints from the shock of what he sees (and we imagine).
No Nazi, in fact a committed Protestant, Gerstein still serves the SS and becomes its top techie for the extermination equipment.
“I shall be the eyes of God in that hell,” he vows.
His brave attempt to alert his own church and then the Vatican, and even subvert the “final solution” technically, forces his patriotism (and his family) into extreme danger.
There is another hero, the smooth Jesuit functionary, but truly devout Father Fontana, played with deer-like alertness by Mathieu Kassovitz. He becomes Gerstein’s conduit to the pope. But his own father is part of the entourage that wants the Holy Father to do nothing, for fear of endangering Catholics (and because of secret “understandings”).
Real events, real suspense
Embroidering real events and people, the movie has a rather square style, and you might recall such papal bulls as “The Cardinal” and “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” But its subject is compellingly grave and thorny. The smug pomp of the Vatican, the gruesome zeal and efficiency of the Nazi killers, the pitiful American diplomatic moves, are elaborated with real suspense, for all the story’s fated tragedy.
There is an ace villain, Ulrich Muhe as “the doctor,” an SS man who seems a Hitlerian fanatic with the sly, barbed cynicism of Iago (or George Sanders). Only out for himself, and even jaded about that, the man is repulsively alluring.
“Amen.” says the church surrendered part of its soul for survival (that’s an old story), and is shamed by congenital bigotry. The moving Calvary of Father Fontana testifies that Christ still lives inside clerical robes.
It is no small achievement that never have the Nazis been more hateful on film, or heroes more fragile and human.
David Elliott is the movie critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. © 2003 by the Copley News Service.