It's likely that the Nazi genocide of European Jews (along with Gypsies, homosexuals, and others considered ethnically or socially deficient) is the most well-documented and thoroughly interpreted subject in the last 50 years of filmmaking. Amen, Constantin Costa-Gavras's latest movie, is one more in the mix, but its subject—the tortured principles of a Nazi Secret Service officer and his attempts to stop the death camp machine—is a unique, powerful angle to the horror.
Greek-born director Costa-Gavras is known for his politically charged films, including 1969's Z, the story of the Greek military junta, and 1982's Missing, perhaps his best-known film in the United States. Missing told the true story of Charles Horman, who was "disappeared" in 1973 during General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile.
In Amen, Costa-Gavras, who co-wrote the script with Jean-Claude Grumberg, tries to show the immense consequences of passivity and the overwhelming responsibility borne by those who are driven by their sense of justice and righteousness. The film is adapted from the German play The Representative (also translated as The Deputy), written by Rolf Hochhuth.
Amen is based on the true story of Kurt Gerstein, a devout Protestant Christian and chemist who joins the SS out of what seems to be patriotic duty. He believes his task is to create a method to purify water and prevent disease among soldiers. There are some who question his participation in the elite guard of Hitler's party—the SS was roundly despised by everyone, including other Nazis—but he is confident that he's untouched by its dark side: "I do nothing," he states, "that is in conflict with my conscience or my faith."
It can be excruciating when viewers know more than the characters in the film: Everyone watching Amen knows long before Gerstein that the Zyklon B gas he's developed has very little to do with water purification and everything to do with the Final Solution. When Gerstein visits the Belzec and Treblinka death camps for the first time in 1942, he is confronted with the terrible knowledge of how his chemistry skills have been applied. Along with a handful of other officers, Gerstein is shown a shower in use at the death camp through an outside peephole. The visual effect of the scene is chilling—the other officers seem to be titillated as if watching a pornographic movie, while Gerstein reacts with revulsion and shock.
How can this be? How could there only be one man out of 10 who is horrified to watch a roomful of naked people poisoned? What Gerstein realizes is that he's not one out of 10, but one out of thousands.
Gerstein decides that maintaining his position within the SS will be more useful than abandoning it, as he can be a credible witness to the atrocities. He tries to tell anyone who might be in a position to stop the death camps. On a crowded train, Gerstein tells everything he knows to the secretary of the Swedish embassy, who seems unsure of what the Allies could do to help. He approaches the Vatican's envoy in Berlin, who is repulsed by Gerstein's SS uniform and who insists that the church must remain neutral in German political matters.
Finally, Gerstein finds an ally: A young Jesuit, Riccardo Fontana (played by Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz), who was present with the Holy See's envoy during Gerstein's assertions about the death camps. Fontana offers his assistance through his personal ties in the Vatican. The two men work together to spread the word about the death camps, but their declarations are met not with skepticism—since most seem to know that the Jews are in fact being exterminated—but with political and diplomatic doublespeak.
THE CATHOLIC Church takes a serious beating in the film. It is painful to watch scenes of the comfortable, well-fed cardinals in their lush Vatican environs and hear their moral equivocations on why exactly the pope can't speak out against the Nazis. The film clearly shows the Vatican's primary concern for the protection of its material assets, and the parallel with the current sex abuse scandals is obvious and terribly sad.
The title of the film is a curious choice. As a child, I was taught that to say "amen" is to say "I believe." The only time the word is spoken in the film is during a chilling scene between Fontana and the Doctor, an SS officer who is Gerstein's ethical opposite. The priest and the amoral doctor have a brief, tense conversation about the Jews being the "chosen people"; the doctor responds with a sarcastic "amen"—I believe. So be it.
Costa-Gavras fills his film with repeating motifs, the most striking being the constantly moving trains. Back and forth, day and night, empty with open doors, full with closed doors, the trains lumber across Germany, into the East. The trains touch every scene, reminding us over and over of the sad futility of Gerstein and Fontana's efforts.
Christians believe that the smallest light overcomes the great darkness. What challenges our faith is when that tiny light is almost invisible, nearly blown out by those who are supposed to carry it on. The two men give all their energy to stopping the machine, but the evil is more than they can manage. What Costa-Gavras wants us to realize, however, is that the indifference of those who know the truth and do nothing in the face of terrible wrong, either during the Holocaust or today, is as horrible as the actual monstrosity.
Judy Coode is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.