During World War II, Kurt Gerstein, a German chemical engineer, risked his life and the lives of his wife and children to do all he could to warn visiting diplomatic authorities, including ones from the United States, and religious leaders about Hitler’s program of exterminating Jews, about which he had firsthand knowledge. Gerstein, a devout Protestant who became an SS officer to spy on Nazi officialdom, is the central figure in the play The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter), by Rolf Hochhuth, which was first performed in 1963, five years after the death of Pope Pius XII. Nearly forty years later, the film version would appear, rechristened Amen., and one must wonder whether riots that attended performances of the play in West Berlin, London and Paris had something to do with the long delay in bringing the property to the screen. Working from a clear, intelligent script by himself and Jean-Claude Grumberg, Costa-Gavras, the politically inclined director of Z (1969), The Confession (1970), State of Seige (1973), Special Section (1975) and Missing (1982), made the film. Shot in English, it is from France, Germany, Romania and the U.S.
Hochhuth’s play has proven extraordinarily capable of upsetting accepted historical notions. It was a given that Pope Pius XII had forthrightly mustered the moral authority of his office to condemn Nazism. After the war, numerous Jewish persons of note generously praised the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church for their support. For example, when she was an ambassador to the United Nations, future Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, on the occasion of the Pope’s death, said to the General Assembly, “During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with the victims.”* After The Deputy, though, the reputation of Pope Pius XII suffered; he was seen as having done, at best, too little too late. At worst, he was regarded as accomplice to the Holocaust. While individual Catholics and Protestants succeeded in saving the lives of individual Jews, the idea emerged that the Pope, if he had marshaled the complete arsenal of his moral authority, might have prevented or, at least, haulted the Holocaust. Did the play, then, provide slander or metaphor? By the figure of the recently deceased pope that it invokes The Deputy measures the responsibility of all public officials to respond to something like Germany’s Final Solution to the “Jewish problem.” The controversy that the play stirred up had less to do with its text than with its meta-text, and the popular and critical reception of The Deputy “revised” the piece into an assault on the Pope and his wartime church. The reputations of both have been wobbling ever since.
One is reminded of what may be, after all, an apocryphal incident. Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, President Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said to her during the American Civil War, “So this is the little lady who started this big war.” Stowe’s novel, of course, has little literary merit, and the same is somewhat true regarding Hochhuth’s long, tedious play that somehow manages to be both turgid and schematic. But that hardly matters; both works are important as sociocultural events. In this light, it’s difficult to gauge the importance of the film. It doesn’t pick apart the nonsense of the Holocaust-deniers, as does, for instance, Errol Morris’s grim, hilarious documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999). Rather, the value of the Costa-Gavras film is principally a matter of its interest as a film. Its sobriety is one more antidote to the lurid, cruel, sentimental antics of Steven Spielberg’s regrettable Schindler’s List (1993).
What did Gerstein know and how did he know it? What made him think that the Pope could have done anything to derail the Holocaust? Both these issues premise the action in the film (as they do the play) and therefore require some initial clarification.
A virulent anti-Nazi whom the Nazis nevertheless retained in their ranks for his scientific expertise, Gerstein was involved in work aimed at purifying typhus-infected water when, in summer 1942, as the head of the SS Technical Disinfection Services he toured Nazi death camps in Belzec and Treblinka and saw the application of his work with zyklon B that he could not have foreseen or even imagined. Through a peephole, he witnessed the gassing of Jewish children and adults in a mass shower facility. From there on he committed himself to a two-prong mission: to get the word out about what was happening in Europe to any person or organization of influence that might intervene, and, with himself now in charge of the distribution of zyklon B to the camps, to do whatever he could to forestall the tragedy until this intervention occurred. In this capacity, he found something wrong—for instance, leaks—with shipment after shipment of cannisters, insisting that they be buried rather than sent along to their intended destinations. It was a losing battle. While in French custody after the war, Gerstein wrote a detailed document about the execution of the Final Solution. He was found hanged in his cell. To this day, no one knows whether his death was suicide or murder.
Gerstein hoped that Pope Pius XII would intervene. What on earth could the Pope do? The reduction of papal influence since World War II tends to disfigure the monumental reach of this Pope Pius XII’s power. Early on, Pope Pius XII’s intervention put an end to the Nazi program of euthanasia that targeted the learning-disabled and mentally challenged. Later, when Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism were being rounded up for transportation to death camps, the Pope again successfully intervened, ending at least this tiny aspect of the Holocaust. It may seem like folly now to expect such influence from the leader of even a world church; it did not then, not in Europe, not where Pope Pius XII was concerned. Gerstein could reasonably hope that the man would do something—and, keep in mind, at the same time, Gerstein was contacting everyone else he could think of, besides. But the Pope offered the best hope. I hasten to add, in light of the two successful papal interventions noted above, what war apologists have long since self-servingly dismissed: that Adolf Hitler was sensitive to world public opinion. An idealistic dictator like Hitler sees himself as a righteous leader and almost invariably desires that the world see him with something like his own eyes. That’s part of the megalomania—the psychological profile. The pressure cooker of war, though, has the effect of replacing this solipsistic sensitivity with a “bunker mentality”; and this indeed becomes the mindset of all nations, leaders and peoples embroiled in war.
All power has limits, of course, including the Pope’s. We will never know what Pope Pius XII might or might not have been able to accomplish, and whether he did as much as he could remains in dispute. Depending on my mood, I believe that the Holocaust could have been prevented or I find the notion a monstrous sentimental myth; it’s simply too painful for me to conclude sometimes that such a horrific event was not stopped when it could have been stopped. Now we know that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt refused to order the bombing of railroad tracks used to transport prisoners to Nazi death camps because he feared, had he done this, a “backlash” against Jewish citizens in the U.S. What a rabbit-hole to fall down into, this; what a sick joke—and, yet, this was apparently the earnest, sincere thinking of a man who would be elected U.S. president four times. Amen. alludes to this curious worry of Roosevelt’s. (One pleads to Roosevelt against time that has been lost forever: Do the humanitarian thing now and deal with any repercussions at home after.) Amen. also punctures with grave wit the idea of world attention to the unfolding Holocaust, with the U.S. and the Vatican each asking the other to verify that people were being killed in these ostensible labor camps that the Nazis were running. With stunning, immaculate humor, Costa-Gavras punctuates his film with long shots of an unflappable pope at the head of a huge, orderly flock of apostles moving silently down and across Vatican corridors. Combined with the camera distance, the mise-en-scène here is potent; while innocent civilians suffer and die outside (eventually) in the millions, in his insular world the Pope leads an idolatrous troop of scouts. At this point, the film isn’t theatrical, but the pontiff is—and pompously so.
Indeed, the fluency of the film that Costa-Gavras has created belies its stage origins, although conversations constitute a good deal of the “action.” Without doubt the most striking scene is the silent one in which, guided by “The Doctor” (a facsimile of Josef Mengele), underlings, including Gerstein, line up in the fresh air, each at a peephole, to espy the gassing of Jews on the other side of the wall. Only Gerstein doesn’t know what to expect, and his simultaneous horror and attempt to suppress that reaction rivet. One is instantly reminded of the last line of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”: “’Is this the upshot of your experiment?’”; for the weight of awful responsibility accompanies the horror since it’s Gerstein himself, with a totally different application in mind, who developed the technique for using zyklon B. Costa-Gavras, so pushy back in his Z days, allows us to draw the hideous connection, which is all the more powerful for his reticence. Gerstein, patriotically, aimed at purifying the water drunk by German soldiers on the Eastern front; Hitler aimed at “purifying” the Aryan race by eliminating non-Aryans from the European population. We watch in horror ourselves as Costa-Gavras, so cut-crazy in his Z days, holds the shot a seeming eternity, with the camera kept steadfast at the outside wall. We never see what The Doctor and the officers see; Gott in Himmel, that we ever should!
The style of the entire film is like this: patient and discreet. Amen. is the work of a mature artist, a man, after all, nearing 70 years of age. It is true that, like all Costa-Gavras films, this one is superficial; it cannot enter the minds of its characters, and it’s in Gerstein’s mind that the principal drama occurs. However, the film’s patience and measured pace encourage us to imagine ourselves in, as do the actors. Meanwhile, Costa-Gavras finds superlative means of punctuating his presentation of the material: in addition to those long shots of the Pope, repeated shots of empty trains going back and forth, often between Berlin and Rome, but, in context, a visual metaphor of the frantic back-and-forth activity to save the Jewish people but all to no avail—to a point of stasis, with back canceling forth, and vice versa, rather than a point of positive action. Thus the empty trains that pass along the tracks also loom as ghost trains evoking the trains transporting Jews to death camps, their vacancy hauntingly, poetically conjuring an image of the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust. (The film’s beautiful color cinematography is by Patrick Blossier.) State of Seige and Missing are sterling, powerful films; but Costa-Gavras has never before been as good as this.
As in the play, there are two major characters in the film. One, Gerstein, was an actual person. The other, his comrade in the attempt to alert others about the mass murder of Jews, is a young Jesuit cleric, Riccardo Fontana. This fictional character represents all the activist priests and other clergy who weighed in against the rounding up and deportation of Jews—individual voices of humanity. Among the actual priests upon whom Fontana is drawn are two martyrs for the cause: Bernhard Lichtenberg, Cathedral Provost of Berlin, who, imprisoned for publicly praying for Jews, was sent to Dachau after he asked to share the fate of his Jewish brethren; and Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest and a Pole, who died in Auschwitz in a starvation bunker—punishment following a prisoner’s escape from the camp, for which Kolbe volunteered in order to spare the life of the Jewish prisoner who would have been chosen instead.
Throughout the film, Fontana’s attempts to approach the Pope, whom he even knows, are somewhat reminiscent of Michael Moore’s attempts to meet General Motors CEO Roger Smith in Roger and Me (1989). The Vatican position becomes clear through those who intercede, keeping Fontana from the Pope: Hitler must be left to his devices because he is getting rid of Communists. On one occasion, though, Fontana is assured that the Pope will make a strong statement against the Nazis in an annual address, but, as Fontana and Gerstein eagerly attend to the broadcast, nothing materializes. The Pope is silent, preferring to trade in banal Christian generalities rather than address topical matters such as what’s happening to the Jews. Finally, Fontana is used up; all his efforts have failed. He sews a Star of David onto his outer garment and takes his place in one of the cars of the train headed to a death camp. For the shot of Fontana among his Jewish brethren, Costa-Gavras shows the car packed with people. In context (all those earlier empty train cars), this comes as a shock and visually reinforces Fontana’s feelings of solidarity with Jews and his monumental sense of guilt for having failed in his mission to save their lives.
Ulrich Tukur gives a sensitive performance as Gerstein, but the casting of Mathieu Kassovitz as Fontana is even more decisive to the film’s success. Kassovitz’s acting, for the most part, remains in the vein of persistent youthful idealism. However, it’s good enough, concentrated enough, that we accept Kassovitz, with his recognizably Jewish face, as Fontana. But something miraculous happens when we see Kassovitz-as-Fontana wearing the cloth Star of David that Nazis insisted that Jews wear to mark them as pariahs. Fontana’s identity collapses into Kassovitz’s, and we see this Jewish filmmaker and actor, whom we feel we know through the films he has made and the films he has acted in, projected backwards in time. Watching Costa-Gavras’s least sentimental film ever, we are suddenly in tears—at least I was—imaging (not imagining—imaging) Mathieu Kassovitz being shipped to his death had he lived in the 1940s.** This upshot is one of cinema’s rare epiphanies.
Costa-Gavras has said that he turned to this material because of what is happening today in Germany, France and elsewhere: the rise of neo-Nazi groups and parties.
I am embarrassed to say that the film, whenever it was out there in theaters, passed under my radar. Is it because of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist the same year that Amen., at least it seems to me, got so little press? Imagine yourself back in time to the late sixties or early seventies. Who would have been your choice to direct a film of Hochhuth’s play The Deputy? Possibly Costa-Gavras. Certainly he would have been able to do the play justice. In 2002 he was able to do it more than justice. A prickly play has been turned into a masterful film that eases the filmmaker into a category of artistic achievement I never dreamed he would inhabit. Costa-Gavras’s Amen. is classically elegant, quiet, refined, patient, absorbing—all manner of things (except for the last) un-Costa-Gavras. At the very least, the subject of the Holocaust seems to have sobered him up. Only time will tell whether his next film will again evidence the mature calm of this one. Only time will tell whether we will want it to.
Amen. won two major prizes in France: the Lumière Award as best film and the César for the year’s best script.
* In his essay “Deconstructing The Deputy” (Catalyst 6/2000), Robert P. Lockwood writes: “Among the Jewish organizations in the United States alone that praised Pope Pius XII at the time of his death for saving Jewish lives during the horror of the Nazi Holocaust were the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Synagogue Council of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the American Jewish Congress, the New York Board of Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Jewish Committee, the National Conference of Christians and Jews[,] and the National Council of Jewish Women.”
** Kassovitz is the son of filmmaker Peter Kassovitz, an Hungarian Jew who, when he was five years old, saw his parents being taken away for transportation to a German camp. A Catholic family hid and shielded the boy. Survivors, the three reunited after the war.
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