Costa-Gavras Returns to Form “Amen.”
by Peter Brunette
While it hardly breaks new cinematic ground, Costa-Gavras‘ latest film, “Amen.,” shown here Wednesday in the competition, is a solid, even engrossing drama whose central theme, the reluctance of the Vatican to speak out about Nazi atrocities during World War II, is brilliantly explored in all its aching complexity. There is no bitter condemnation of the Pope here, as some Catholics might fear, but rather a sensitive probing of the multiple agendas at work, with no one — except the Nazis — being singled out for blame. The Greek-born, Paris-based Costa-Gavras has always been one the world’s finest political filmmakers, with triumphs such as “Z,” “The Confession,” and “Missing,” to his credit, and it is very good indeed to see him back in form here after more recent missteps such as the Hollywood film “Mad City,” which starred John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman.
Basing his story on Rolf Hochhuth‘s famous 1963 play “The Representative,” Costa-Gavras does a fine job of opening the film up beyond its original theatrical frame. The Holocaust is, tragically, all too cinematic to begin with, and that has helped. But even the dramatic encounters between two or three people in small rooms, successfully avoid the deadly whiff of the stage. Nor, thank Heaven, is anyone allowed to give speeches, and thus the dialogue always rings true.
Interestingly, one of the central characters, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), the inventor of Zyklon-B gas and devoted Christian who takes it upon himself to alert the world about what the Nazis are doing to the Jews, is based on a real-life person, while his counterpart, the “representative,” Father Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), who seeks condemnation of the Nazis from the Holy Father, is a fictional character. The blending of fact and fiction, however, is seamless and the each man’s struggle to bear Christian witness is convincing and powerful. The Jewish-French actor Kassovitz (a well-known director in his own right, who recently starred in “Amélie“) is nuanced and believable as an Italian priest. Tukur does a nice job of conveying the multiple, even contradictory aspects of the SS officer’s personality; he is a devoted father, a bon vivant host, a convinced moralist, and an efficient scientist who comes to regret having invented the toxic gas which was intended to be used on vermin, not people.
Many of the film’s best moments come in encounters between fathers and sons, on both the German side as well as the Italian, with the priest’s father being an especially richly drawn character who eventually sees the light. Gerstein’s father, in contrast, never does, and his and his son’s differing visions of their country’s honor are carefully distinguished without ever losing dramatic punch. Even the American reluctance to save the Jews through negotiation with Hitler, as articulated by the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, seems horrifying yet almost justifiable, given the Americans’ desire to crush the Germans militarily before all else.
One thing that European critics here at the Berlinale have complained about is the fact that the film was shot almost entirely in English. In this particular city, so drenched with such sad history, the film’s language did make it seem slightly artificial, but this should not be a problem for audiences in America (if and when it gets U.S. distribution, which it certainly deserves). Perhaps expecting this sort of criticism, the filmmakers included the following quite reasonable statement at the beginning of the press book: “‘Amen.’ is a 100% French production in association with Germany. English was the language uniting our German, French, Romanian, Italian and American actors.” The only jarring note comes when the German characters occasionally break into song, in German, but presumably this fault can be remedied by some judicious dubbing.
Another challenge for all Holocaust-themed movies, of course, is avoiding the iconology of roundup and train cars, whose very familiarity can numb us to the human tragedy we witness on screen. Costa-Gavras gets around this by shooting most of these scenes at night, which makes them feel fresh, and, most importantly, by allowing us to see everything through Gerstein’s incredulous eyes as he discovers what’s going on in those “work” camps in Poland. By this means, Costa-Gavras allows us to re-experience these potentially clichéd events in all their original horror. Where he is less successful is in his repeated use of an empty train, puffing black smoke as it roars through the night to the accompaniment of frenzied strings. The first few times you see this motif, it’s haunting, but it quickly becomes affected. Every other aspect of the director’s filmmaking is, as always, thoroughly competent, but never especially exciting or imaginative. Luckily, the drama itself is tense and thematically complicated enough to keep the viewer closely involved.