AMEN: Film by Costa-Gavras
Amen Holocaust Costa Gavras
FILM REVIEW (NY Times) – A Balanced View
An Inventor Trapped in Nazi Evil
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: January 24, 2003
At least since ”Z,” his ferocious thriller about the 1967 military coup in Greece, Constantin Costa-Gavras has specialized in dramas about fallible, generally decent people who find themselves in intimate confrontation with political evil — usually but not exclusively some variant of fascism. His movies, more often than not derived from actual events, tend to be explorations of the untenable choices that fascism forces on the liberal conscience.
For his heroes — the father in ”Missing” searching for his son in Pinochet’s Chile, the daughter in ”The Music Box” reluctantly delving into her father’s Nazi past — evil turns out to dwell close to home. These films explore how difficult it is to do the right thing when that entails opposing your own country and family.
The hero of Mr. Costa-Gavras’s new movie, ”Amen,” which opens today in New York City and on Long Island, faces an extreme version of this dilemma, since he dwells at the very epicenter of murderous 20th-century totalitarianism. Kurt Gerstein, a real historical figure played by Ulrich Tukur, was a chemical engineer and a lieutenant in the SS who developed Zyklon B, the compound used in the Nazi extermination camps.
In the film, Gerstein, never a very zealous Nazi to begin with, is horrified when he discovers the lethal application of his invention, which he had thought was intended to purify drinking water for German troops at the front. He tries to alert the world about the unfolding genocide and also to slow it down by whatever bureacratic and technical means he can.
And so he finds himself ensnared in two terrible paradoxes: his only hope of obstructing the machinery of death is to continue to participate in it, but because he is so centrally involved in it, his testimony is ignored and mistrusted. (After the war Gerstein was arrested by the Allies and either committed suicide or was murdered while in their custody. A denazification court posthumously declared him tainted by Nazism. His name was cleared in 1965, when his efforts to document Germany’s wartime atrocities and to prevent them from continuing were at last acknowledged.)
Gerstein’s story is inherently troubling, and Mr. Costa-Gavras tethers it to some large and persistent moral questions about the Holocaust. In particular, he examines the record of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII, a record that has been the subject of renewed debate in recent years, and of books by, among others, James Carroll, Garry Wills, David Kertzer and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
The only person who will listen to Gerstein is Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), an aristocratic young Jesuit attached to the papal nuncio in Berlin. Fontana’s repeated attempts to bring the slaughter of European Jews to the attention of the pope lead nowhere, and he and Gerstein are forced to confront their own powerlessness, and the indifference of those who might have the power to act — including not only Pius XII, but also the American ambassador, who brushes aside the suggestion that the Allies might bomb the train lines to the camps, or negotiate with the Germans for Jewish lives.
”Amen,” which was loosely adapted from ”The Deputy,” Rolf Hochhuth’s groundbreaking and controversial 1963 play, is laden with difficult, fascinating themes. Unfortunately, Mr. Costa-Gavras, who has in the past been deft at using suspense as a mode of ethical inquiry, fails to bring them to dramatic life.
Gerstein’s predicament, horrifying as it is, also bears an element of black, Kafkaesque absurdity: his only hope of halting the crime in which he is implicated is to continue in his complicity. But while the audience is invited to reflect on this nightmare, we never experience anything like its full intensity. In part this is because Gerstein’s righteousness, like Fontana’s, is simply assumed, so that the only drama we witness is the spectacle of frustrated goodness.
Again and again, the stricken Jesuit, with brimming eyes and wobbly chin, comes up against the dithering, platitudinous pope, who he is sure can stop the Germans by denouncing them. After a while, since Mr. Kassovitz is unable to suggest anything deeper, Fontana’s despair starts to look like petulance, and his final gesture of protest — affixing a yellow star to his habit and boarding a train for the camps — looks like an act of moral vanity. Which in a way it is, since it makes the deaths of millions of Jews, in the end, all about him. ”Even contrition can become pride,” his father warns, and he is not altogether wrong.
That line of dialogue, I’m afraid, is fairly typical of the script, which Mr. Costa-Gavras wrote with Jean-Claude Grumberg. This well-intentioned film clearly wants to make a statement and to suggest topics for argument — about the failure of religious and political leaders to do enough to stop the Holocaust and, more generally, about the conflict between morality and practicality. The problem is that the characters themselves do little more than make statements or propose arguments, weighing the story down with talky, awkward didacticism. (The awkwardness is only underscored by the decision to make an English-language film with actors who are less than comfortable with the language.)
Visually, the film makes its points with more concision and power. Rather than rub our faces in graphic depictions of horror, Mr. Costa-Gavras uses spare, haunting images to suggest the enormity that surrounds Gerstein and Fontana. Several times we see empty boxcars returning from the camps, their doors open. The Vatican and its surroundings are filmed in soft, luxuriant light, which, when contrasted with the wintry harshness of Germany, conveys the detachment of the church from the charnel house that surrounds it.
In the movie’s most unsettling sequence, Gerstein and a select group of SS officers, led by a reptilian character called the Doctor (Ulrich Mühe, whose face and supercilious manner suggest a leaner, meaner Kevin Spacey), watch through peepholes as the Zyklon B does its work. We do not see what they see. Instead we hear the muffled thump of falling bodies and study the faces of the murderers.
But in the end ”Amen” is neither as moving nor as illuminating as it should be. It suffers especially when compared — as is inevitable, given the closeness of their release dates — with ”The Pianist,” Roman Polanski’s movie about a Polish Jew during the Nazi occupation. Granted, the films have very different aims: Mr. Polanski’s is fundamentally about the victims, not the perpetrators, and he does not share Mr. Costa-Gavras’s penchant for didacticism. But the larger difference is in the extent to which the filmmakers trust their art, and their audiences, to approach a historical experience that still, after so many years and so many movies, lies at the very limit of human comprehension.
Mr. Polanski’s ferocious discipline and his steadfast refusal to explain or sentimentalize what he shows have the effect of bringing us closer to an understanding of evil and the ways it can be opposed and, sometimes, overcome. Mr. Costa-Gavras, in contrast, is devoted to explanation at the expense of everything else, and the result is that this history, in his hands, feels staged and studied rather than lived.