AMEN, the new film from radical director Costas-Gavras, provoked a furious reaction in France even before it was screened.
Advertising posters showed a crucifix bent into the shape of a swastika. The film is an assault on the disgraceful failure of the Catholic church to speak out against the Holocaust as it was taking place in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during the Second World War. It centres on the real life character of SS officer Kurt Gerstein, brilliantly played by Ulrich Tukur.
He is a committed Christian, yet at the same time a German patriot and loyal to the SS. Early scenes show how the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany spoke out against the Nazis' 'euthanasia' programme, which aimed to wipe out mentally disabled people in Germany. Gerstein is therefore confident that the leaders of his Protestant church will speak out against the later gassing of Jews when he tells them he has witnessed a prototype gas chamber.
But they refuse to publicise the atrocities. The same is true of the Catholic bishops. The film introduces a fictional young priest, Riccardo Fontana, who is appalled at the silence. The rest of the story turns on his and Gerstein's attempts to get the Catholic hierarchy in Rome and the Allied governments to publicise and denounce the Nazis' genocide of the Jews.
This is the source of the film's strengths, and of a weakness. It captures the cold, bureaucratic logic of the Nazi extermination machine. People are referred to as 'units'. The murder of millions is described as 'disinfection'.
But it further shows how the Catholic church and Allied powers operated according to their own calculated self interest. The pope and his advisers are more concerned to see the 'godless' regime of Stalin in Russia crushed than they are to condemn Hitler.
A US ambassador candidly explains how saving the Jews would be a diversion from the Allies' war aims. SS officers at Auschwitz boast how they are never bombed, even as Allied planes reduce German cities to rubble. And there are hints at how the deliberate bombing of German civilians undermined internal opposition to the Nazi regime.
The weakness, however, is in the two central characters. Gerstein is a chemist whose knowledge of Zyklon B (originally a decontaminant) is used by the SS when they discover it can kill large numbers of people when poured into a gas chamber. He is appalled, but he carries on supplying the gas (though he sabotages shipments).
There is little exploration of the enormous contradictions in Gerstein-a Christian opponent of the Holocaust who remains in the company of its principal agents. The priest Riccardo is one dimensional-a Christ- like figure. Both end up as plot devices rather than complex characters. But as such they serve as counterpoints to the hierarchy they try to influence.
Amen is more conventionally made than some of Costas-Gavras's earlier films, such as Z, and lacks their pace. But it keeps your attention for two hours as your anger and emotion build right up to the final scene.