“It is neither understandable nor excusable that a devout Christian such as himself did not do everything in his power to avoid being involved in such a criminal system.”
In this case, the “criminal system” refers to the unfathomable killing of millions of Jews (and other groups) by the German military during World War II. We all know hindsight is 20/20, but you figure perfect vision shouldn’t be required for anyone to see what an atrocity the Holocaust was at the time, and put a stop to it. Amen. powerfully — and controversially— portrays why the solution wasn’t quite so clear.
The 2002 film, making its Blu-ray debut courtesy of the Cohen Media Group, is based on the even more controversial 1963 play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth. The play depicted a Vatican — led by Pope Pius XII — that refused to condemn or otherwise take action against the Holocaust. Director/co-writer Costa-Gavras (Z, Capital) expands both the perspective and scope of the source material, bestowing more screen time on the Nazi party and the state of mind of one particularly conflicted German.
Amen. opens with a startling scene: a Jewish journalist strolls into the League of Nations in 1936, decries the lack of consideration being given to German anti-Semitism, and commits suicide. This real-life incident is not part of Hochhuth’s original play, but is nevertheless a strong thematic match. Costa-Gavras immediately and effectively establishes the notion that no one is paying attention.
The film’s main character is Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a German officer who is part of the SS Hygiene Institute. His duties include helping purify water for soldiers in the battlefield, and he eventually develops a gas called Zyklon-B that is meant to eradicate typhus. Gerstein is horrified when he finds out the gas he created is being used to kill Jews in concentration camps. While Gerstein decides to remain in the SS to serve as a crucial witness — “the eyes of God in that hell” — he tries to alert anyone who will listen about the atrocities he has witnessed firsthand. The only response he gets from the stubbornly neutral Catholic hierarchy is a sympathetic ear from Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a young Jesuit priest who comes from an influential Italian family that has the Vatican’s ear. Gerstein and Riccardo work together to try to get a meeting with Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iures) and bring worldwide attention to the genocide.
The script — written by Costa-Gavras, along with Jean-Claude Grumberg — touches on some of the reasons the Vatican (and other factions) refuse to believe or act on Gerstein’s claims. These reasons range from the victims not being Catholic to the Allied forces not wanting to distract from the war effort. The Vatican is also distrustful of information that allegedly comes from within the SS itself. I wish the film had spent a little more time on the Vatican perspective — especially since the church had previously protested the Nazi euthanasia program that killed people who were senile, handicapped, or otherwise “racially unfit” — and a lot more time fleshing out Pope Pius XII. (Though the film comes up short on this regard, the Blu-ray bonus material absolutely makes up for it; more on that in the Special Features section.)
Then again, Amen. also makes the point that the biggest reason no one could believe the Holocaust was occurring was because the idea of it was literally unbelievable. (To this day, there are still a number of notable Holocaust deniers.) It’s easier — and more pleasant for the German citizenry — to believe the Jews who are being rounded up are either working at factories or being sent to America, than it is to believe they’re being killed at a rate of 10,000 per day. The number of deaths and the manner of killing was inconceivable, but Costa-Gavras presents the Nazi party’s Final Solution as a clinical, casually cruel exercise. There’s a scene where Gerstein is invited to attend a meeting where high-ranking Nazi party members plan their genocide the same way a group of architects might map out the construction of a new skyscraper.
Gerstein is a real-life figure, and we learn during the film’s coda that his reports contributed to the authentication of the Holocaust. Tukur gives a compelling, emotional performance. This is especially crucial since the concentration camp deaths aren’t depicted on screen; instead, the horror is conveyed through Tukur’s eyes and his character’s unwavering obsession with alerting the rest of the world. Gerstein runs into resistance from superiors, as well as his own disbelieving family. (He has a young son who has tragicomically been indoctrinated into the Nazi party, and enthusiastically throws up a Nazi salute whenever he gets the chance.)
Riccardo, on the other hand, is a fictional invention. At first, the character feels like the plot-convenient creation he is — a young passionate ally for the increasingly desperate Gerstein — but Kassovitz brings the right mix of warmth and forcefulness to make you care about Riccardo when he makes his bold decision toward the end. The other notable cast member is Ulrich Muhe as an unnamed Nazi party Doctor; it’s a riveting, pragmatic portrait of evil.
Costa-Gavras conspicuously avoids using any title cards to denote the passage of time after the opening scene. The most we get are increasingly depressing reports about the escalating number of deaths, and repeated transitional shots of trains transporting Jews through the European countryside. (Despite his best efforts, Gerstein notes “the trains keep rolling.”) The result is a lack of a cut-and-dry arc or timeline, which gives the Holocaust an abstract quality that probably reflects how a lot of people felt about the idea of a mass genocide.
The film courted controversy when it was released thanks to its subject matter and poster art that intertwined a cross with a swastika. Its unflattering view of the Catholic church notwithstanding, Amen. is a moving, thought-provoking mix of fact and fiction.
Amen. is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 29 mbps. The film is only 12 years old, so I don’t imagine it was quite as big of a challenge to restore as other catalogue titles. On the flip side, the restoration efforts aren’t as obvious here as they might be on an older, more damaged print. So while this is a very impressive HD update, the new Blu-ray doesn’t quite reach the razor sharp heights or crystal clear clarity of an even more modern period film. (There’s a good amount of detail on close-ups — especially faces and uniforms — but other shots come off looking a bit soft.) Speaking of the uniforms, the film works in a similarly gray, overcast palette. The only bursts of color and warmth come from the scenes set in Italy and the Catholic clergy’s wardrobe, which are presented accurately and dynamically for the most part.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, on the other hand, *does* sound like it could’ve been put together yesterday. Its excellence may not be obvious, but there’s a tremendous amount of detail throughout the entire sound field. I’m talking everything from assorted crowd chatter during an early street scene to the sickening rumble of the subs from inside a gas chamber. I haven’t even mentioned that Armand Amar’s grand score sounds fantastic. There’s good fidelity on display here, even if the sudden burst of a train screaming down the tracks tends to come on a bit too aggressively. Really, the biggest drawback has almost nothing to do with the track. There are no English subtitles available on this disc, which is a problem because virtually every one of the actors speak some form of accented English. Otherwise, this is a masterful job on what could’ve simply been a straightforward, dialogue-driven presentation.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Audio Commentary with director Costa-Gavras and film critic Wade Major: Billed as a “conversation” between the pair, this ends up being an enlightening hybrid that combines elements of a traditional commentary track and an interview. Major uses the action on screen to ask relevant questions about the film, which Costa-Gavras answers in a fair amount of detail. The filmmaker also discusses the decision to make his movie — set in Europe and featuring mostly German and Italian characters — in English. (Costa-Gavras thought an English-language film had a better chance of reaching a wider audience.)
BBC Documentary — Pope Pius XII: The Pope, the Jews, and the Nazis: (1:02:02) This 1996 documentary comes courtesy of the BBC series Reputations, and helps fill in the blanks on what I considered to be the film’s most significant shortcoming. Through archival footage and balanced talking-head interviews, the documentary traces the election of Pope Pius XII in 1939 (as World War II loomed) and the charges of anti-Semitism he faced as a result of the Vatican’s lack of direct opposition to the Holocaust. This is an excellent, more even-handed supplement to the feature film.
2014 Re-release Trailer
I know there have been a glut of films on the subject — and World War II, in general — and that they don’t exactly make for cheery viewing, but this one is definitely worth a look. That’s especially the case now that it’s out on a fine-looking Blu-ray that includes useful bonus material.