Friday 11 November 2011

Politics without condescension

Amen., directed by Costa-Gavras (2005)

Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras is not a poetic filmmaker. He is the exemplar of the political artist, except for one thing. He’s actually quite good at it. His career is filled with well made, if not visionary nor great, films, but, because the films do take some creative risks, and rarely condescend, they rise above the mountain of bad political art, in most fields, which can easily be reduced to a bumper sticker.

His 2002 German, French, and Romanian produced film, Amen., (the title includes a period), is no exception to his career rule, and even in it, Costa-Gavras shows that he has a playfulness that few ‘political’ artists have. The word ‘amen’ is the ending to most prayers, and in its original meaning, in Hebrew, it means ‘as it goes’ or ‘so be it’. The fact that the title also includes the definitive period sets up the tension of the film, which follows the lives of two non-Jewish men in Germany, who try to subvert the Nazi death camp machine. But, as in most little man vs. faceless corporation tales, the two little men are crushed. But, it is the very use of this schema that sets this tale of the Third Reich and the Holocaust apart from far lesser films, like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List or even Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (which likewise takes a chronological approach, from the start of things, in 1936). Along with the portrayal of the Nazi war machine as an inhuman unstoppable force is the concomitant portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church, under Pope Pius XII, as silent enablers, if not outright collaborators, with the Third Reich. For this, the film was widely, and falsely, attacked by Church apologists who, lest we forget, are the same people who, now, defend the church’s role in a centuries-long paedophilia scandal.

The film even emphasises this early on, when we see scenes of handicapped and mentally ill people being rounded up to be euthanised. One of them turns out to be the niece of the film’s SS hero, Lieutenant Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur, who looks like a cross between Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris), a chemist who joined the SS in order to help provide sanitary conditions for German soldiers, and help purify water with Zyklon B, a pesticide. When Gerstein finds out of his niece’s death he gets the Catholic and Lutheran churches of Germany to rise against the Nazis and end the euthanasia. A bit later, in the film, he is taken to witness the gassing of Jews, Gypsies, and other ‘undesirables’ and is shocked. Costa-Gavras highlights this by having him, and other Nazis, watch the deaths through a peephole, but refraining from letting the audience see it.

Determined to stop the genocide, Gerstein believes he can defeat it from within, while rallying the churches, again, to protest to the Nazi government. His Protestant comrades turn their backs on him, out of cowardice and disbelief, while his appeal to the cardinal of Berlin is unheeded; save for Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), an idealistic Jesuit who believes the claims Gerstein makes. But, he requires tangible proof he can bring to the Pope (Marcel Iures), who is friends with his father. Both men naively believe in the innate goodness of average human beings.

Both men are also manipulated by an unnamed Nazi doctor, played by Ulrich Muhe (a nice reversal of the power roles the two men would have in the later film, The Lives Of Others, wherein the Tukur character manipulates the Muhe character). The Doctor seems to know far more about Gerstein and the Final Solution than he lets on, but also seems to have a real affection for Gerstein, whom he seems to get off on letting dangle between disaster and ethical crises. After Fontana gets credible evidence to the Vatican, including the eyewitness testimony of Gerstein, the Pope does nothing to specifically condemn the Nazi regime, nor the death camps, as Jews are rounded up in Rome, as the Germans prepare to retreat under the assault of the Allied advance up the Italian peninsula. In response, Fontana dons a Star of David to his frock, and is sent to s death camp where the all-knowing doctor ends up finding him in the process of being saved by Gerstein. The doctor feigns that he will reprimand Gerstein, and orders the priest to his death.

Gerstein, meanwhile, returns to his family and crosses advancing Allied lines to testify about the atrocities. But, he is shown a dossier where he is going to be charged with complicity in the atrocities. The next scene we hear that he has hung himself. Whether or not this is so, or if he was killed by fellow Nazis who were imprisoned, is not answered. The film ends with only one of the three lead characters, the nameless doctor, alive, and being helped in his escape from Europe, and to Argentina, by Vatican priests. Both the doctor and Fontana are fictional composites, whereas Gerstein is based upon a real person, and the film was based upon Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play Der Stellvertreter. Ein Christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy, A Christian Tragedy), adapted by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg. It’s a solid adaptation, lacking in poesy, but with a solid prosaic substructure that allows for the film to avoid most of the clichés of Nazi films (the big exception being the stale claim that the Holocaust was the worst human atrocity ever). The cinematography, by Patrick Blossier, is solid, but not earth-shaking. The film’s score, by Armand Amar, is also solid, but the film walks a balance between being a period costume drama and being a probe of mores quite well.

The 130-minute long film, on a Kino DVD, is a solid package. The film was shot in English, so there are no dubbing nor subtitling issues, although all songs are sung in German (it’s one of those cessions to film that you need just accept). Unfortunately, the film lacks any audio commentary, and it’s a film that really cries out for a commentary, preferably by a film expert in tandem with a World War Two historian. There is a making of documentary that runs about a half hour, and has interviews with the three major stars. It’s an interesting effort, insofar as it goes (not that far), and there is a scene comparison between the film and the source play. There is also a video press book for the film, and the original theatrical trailer for this film, and several others.

Overall, a good film, a solid DVD package, and, while nowhere near great, a good take on the internals of the Nazi war and death machines, from the people on the inside, many of them whose only crime was cowardice. Amen. shows the lone exception, and the reality that he was crushed. Most filmgoers will bristle at this, to which one can only state, get over it. This film, and its maker, do.


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