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.
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.”
Such revelations were a staple of 1950s West Germany. Syberberg’s magnum opus crushingly devotes a full hour to the dis-orientingly detailed Christmas Eve recollections of Hitler’s valet. Indeed, Heller and Schmiderer show their subject watching herself and pronouncing her testimony “banal.” (Replaying the tape also serves to jog her memory regarding the one time she heard the word “Jew” used in Hitler’s presence—causing him to leave the room in a rage and ban his indiscreet guest. According to Traudl, the other word that Hitler never used was “love.”) But Blind Spot is not without historical significance. Traudl was with Hitler to the end and, sequestered in the bunker, witnessed the implosion of the Nazi cult. There was no longer day or night, no more regular meals; Hitler went blank; “people even started smoking in his presence.” Everyone was discussing suicide. The dam breaks: In a torrent of discourse, Traudl evokes the atmosphere of paranoia, describes the last-minute weddings, recalls the poisoning of Hitler’s dog, relives the death of the Goebbels children. She needs no prompting and experiences a sudden anger on recalling how, with his own suicide, Hitler had abandoned them. The survivors had no idea what to do.
That unexpected rage is the movie’s most powerful emotional truth. (It is, as Lanzmann demonstrated in Shoah, one way to make the past present.) Traudl died the night Blind Spot had its world premiere in Berlin. Having heard her confession, the filmmakers granted absolution. Her last words in the documentary are “I think I’m beginning to forgive myself.”
Martina Kudlacek’s In the Mirror of Maya Deren documents the life of America’s defining avant-garde filmmaker. Maya Deren was born Eleanora Derenkovskaya in Kiev in 1917; she died 44 years later in New York of a cerebral hemorrhage. In the interim, she produced a handful of short films, most in the mid 1940s, that invented both her on-screen persona and social role. Deren used to maintain she made her movies for what a Hollywood production spent on lipstick. The model created by this strong-willed woman persists, as does the influence of her early psychodramas. (Madonna is not the only pop star to base a video on Deren’s imagery.) As she appeared in all of her early films, Deren remains a familiar presence—her corona of frizzy hair and exotic peasant dress suggesting a hippie avant la lettre. As these films have no dialogue, however, her emphatic, smoky voice—heard here, among other things, lustily singing the folk song “Stones in My Bed”—is less well known and turns out to have an unexpected resemblance to Lucille Ball’s.
Annotating excerpts from the movies with oral history, Kudlacek’s film is a well-wrought introduction not just to Deren but an under-leveraged chunk of the art world. Perhaps Julianna Margulies, an actress who resembles the filmmaker, will be inspired to do for Maya what Salma Hayek did for Frida Kahlo.
“Working Girl: Listening to Hitler’s Secretary” by Leslie Camhi