Secrets and Lies

The Cleric and the Clerk Who Turned a Blind Eye

How does one fashion art from atrocity's lovely bones? As the worst episode of the 20th century is endlessly represented, two willfully elusive, imperiously demanding motion pictures have never seemed more relevant. Reviewing this week's movies without reference to Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's seven-hour Hitler: A Film From Germany or Claude Lanzmann's nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah would be akin to teaching high school biology without mentioning Charles Darwin.

A minor outrage in France and Italy, where its advertising poster fused the swastika and the cross, Costa-Gavras's Amen tackles the again topical issue of the Catholic Church's institutional indifference to the Holocaust—or, to be more specific, the failure of Pope Pius XII to address the Nazi annihilation of Europe's Jews while it was in progress. The pope does make a few shadowy appearances, but the movie's focus is on two more positive individuals: the devout Protestant chemist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), who joins the SS in order to expose its crimes, and his cohort, the Jesuit priest Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), who ultimately puts on the yellow star and is himself deported to Auschwitz.

Gerstein, a historical figure who furnished detailed evidence against the Nazis and died under mysterious circumstances while in custody after the war, is a wide-eyed observer. Initially a sterilizer of water on the eastern front, he is recruited to another sort of cleansing by a sinister figure called the Doctor (Ulrich Mühe). Gerstein is taken to an unnamed concentration camp and invited to watch through a peephole as the Jews who have been herded into this enclosure are gassed within. Unlike Steven Spielberg, Costa-Gavras doesn't presume to take the viewer inside. The unspeakable is registered on the actor's face—an emotional peak that Amen never again achieves.

The Catholic Church stays on the sidelines in Amen.
photo: Kino International
The Catholic Church stays on the sidelines in Amen.


Directed by Costa-Gavras
Written by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg, from The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth
Kino International
Opens January 24, at the Paris

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary
Directed by Andr Heller and Othmar Schmiderer
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens January 24, at Lincoln Plaza

In the Mirror of Maya Deren
Directed by Martina Kudlacek
January 24 through February 6, at Anthology

Still in shock, Gerstein boards a train and, happening to meet a Swedish diplomat, immediately tells him what is happening. Back home, the distraught SS man runs to his pastor and is advised to keep quiet. Finally, he bursts in on the local bishop with a message for the Vatican. The annoyed clerics throw him out, but Gerstein does pique the conscience of Father Riccardo (a composite figure), who is certain that "when the Holy Father is informed of these atrocities he will take a firm stand."

To that end, Gerstein continues to gather evidence even as he oversees shipments of Zyklon B to the Nazi death camps. It's unclear why the SS allows him so long a leash, especially since he is compelled to have regular philosophical debates with the infinitely cynical doctor. On the practice of euthanasia, the latter notes that "our church came forward for the lunatics—nobody came forward for the Jews." (Supposedly based on Josef Mengele, the doctor often paraphrases Heinrich Himmler, whose statements on the Final Solution constitute the most intense projection of horror and pathos in Hitler: A Film From Germany.) As Gerstein tap-dances on the edge of the abyss, Father Riccardo ruins every Vatican soiree by harping on the subject of the Jews. Impervious to the "official" logic that, however unpleasant, Hitler served as a useful bulwark against Communism, the priest only despairs when the pope remains silent even as Germans begin deporting Jewish converts to Christianity under his nose.

A few concentration camp inmates aside, there are no individuated Jewish characters. Amen is purposefully abstract. Urgency is underscored by repeated long shots of rolling freight trains. This motif, as well as the emphasis on genocide as a perverse form of industrial production, is crucial to Shoah; Costa-Gavras's didactic thriller is, however, derived from German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 dramatic assemblage The Deputy. The speeches in that six-hour play were largely taken from the historical record and the cast included actual persons—among them Gerstein, Pope Pius, and Adolf Eichmann. Robert Brustein called this nearly unperformable play, published with 60 pages of documentation, "a German doctoral dissertation in verse." What's apparent now is that in his attempt to make history present, Hochhuth was groping toward Shoah 20 years before Lanzmann.

What then is the point of Amen? Arriving on the heels of the televised Eichmann trial—a more successful public spectacle—The Deputy was the original Holocaust blockbuster. Because Hochhuth emphasized the complicity of the pope and the German Catholic Church, The Deputy provoked riots in West Berlin, Paris, and London; the Roman production closed before opening night. In New York, the drastically truncated Broadway version precipitated another type of scandal when a number of Jewish organizations, notably the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, acceded to pressure from local Catholic groups to condemn the show and, fruitlessly, prevent it from opening.

Did Hochhuth break the same taboo as Father Riccardo? The history of The Deputy gives Amen additional relevance. Costa-Gavras provides a post-war postscript to make clear that honesty is punished; cynicism survives.

The no-frills documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary is a movie with two stars. One, never seen, is Hitler; the other, constantly on-screen, is the elderly woman who, once upon a time, took his dictation. Which is more fascinating—the personification of evil or the humble creature who innocently served him?

Tracked down and interviewed by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, Traudl Junge seems intelligent and self-aware. She makes no excuses, although her analysis of her younger self has a practiced facility. ("It's easy not to be a Nazi when no Hitler is around," as Syberberg put it in his 1974 interview with an unreconstructed führer familiar, The Confessions of Winifred Wagner.) Frau Junge cites her naïveté and the psychological security she found, as a fatherless child, working for Germany's leader. In contrast to his forbidding public image, Hitler struck her as "a kindly old gentleman" who spoke, with quaint Austrian inflections, in a "courteous manner." His stomach was bad but his grooming was good. He hated overheated rooms and loved his dog Blondie—whom he taught to "sing" in a deep tone "like Zarah Leander."

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