"Amen," a film based on the largely accurate account of German SS officer Kurt Gerstein's multiple attempts to alert the Vatican to the ongoing highly efficient mass slaughter of Jews and others - for which he bore no small responsibility as a technician facilitating efficient genocide - is well done with excellent acting. Yet in the end Costa-Gravas's film is somewhat unsatisfying and not sufficiently responsive to the viewer's need to know what Gerstein was all about. Why?
"Amen" begins with the Nazi euthanasia program aimed at murdering retarded and mentally ill Germans. A campaign, spearheaded by both Protestant and Catholic clerics and their flocks, forced the regime to end the killings. Some have argued that this sole widespread public rejection of Nazi homicidal machinations might well have been repeated if Germans were alerted - internally or through specific denunciations by the pope and foreign leaders - of the fate of deported Jews and those rounded up in conquered territories. "Amen's" Kurt Gerstein and his priest friend both believe that would have happened.
That argument is at best questionable and, more likely, reflects the human need for the wish to spawn the thought. Whether one accepts the Goldenhagen thesis of mass complicity by Germans in the Holocaust, the fact remains that when the slaughter began Germany was at war and, as a character in "Amen" notes, defending the Reich and winning the war, to say nothing of staying clear of what would be seen as treasonous ideas, was the only realistic option.
Kurt Gerstein is a mystery. As Hannah Arendt wrote of Eichmann as an example of evil's often banal incarnation, historian Saul Friedlander described Gerstein years ago in terms of the ambiguity of good. Gerstein sincerely and at risk to his life tried to warn the Vatican of the Nazi death camps. But he also worked efficiently to make those camps operationally efficient. "Amen's" Gerstein is tortured but also highly compartmentalized. He gives quick and accurate advice to improve destruction of the "units," as the Jews were referred to, and then tries to prevent use of the Zyklon B gas he helped develop with almost unbelievable declarations that shipments are defective and must be buried.
This film owes its origin not so much to Friedlander's compelling account but to Rolf Hochhuth's controversial (still so after many years) "The Deputy," presented as a play to the outrage of many. Hochhuth portrayed Pope Pius XII as insensitive and unwilling to use his moral authority to challenge an extermination program he knew to be in progress.
In the film Gerstein is aided by a young Jesuit priest whose remarkable moral and physical courage was demonstrated by a few, or perhaps too few, clerics who knew what was happening. The pope is shown as a remote, unemotional figure. The now standard explanations for the Vatican's unwillingness to take on the Nazis are included in catalogue format. Allied unwillingness to bomb the death camps or take in refugee Jews are recited almost for the record. Complex questions still debated are reduced to the equivalent of sound bites. They need no repeating here.
Hochhuth's thesis which outraged many decades ago and which still brings angry denunciations has been partially rehabilitated by scholarly works such as John Cornwell's provocatively titled study, "Hitler's Pope," an exaggeration which belies the serious research and analysis within the book's covers.
Cornwell's pope is personally unpleasant, haughtily autocratic, rabidly fearful of Communism, at least mildly anti-Semitic and certainly emotionally and politically pro-German if not pro-Hitler (he wasn't that). The Pope Pius of "Amen" lacks the depth a more accurate and compelling portrayal would have provided.
The strongest moments in the film are those briefly showing the efficiency of the death camps focusing less on the victims, most of whom aren't shown, but rather on the chillingly competent technicians and logisticians without whose efforts millions could not have been murdered.
Director Costa-Gravas deserves much credit for bringing a difficult to tell complex story to the screen. Ultimately, however, we know less about Kurt Gerstein than we need to and the Vatican, from pope to bureaucrat, is too colorless. Was Gerstein a victim or a collaborator with a schizophrenic sense of morality? Even scholar Friedlander couldn't answer that question. Did the Vicar of Christ shame his church's vision of Jesus by putting political expediency ahead of moral imperative? That is a very alive issue today but "Amen" gives us a largely one-dimensional Supreme Pontiff.
The cast is unknown to American viewers but all act with varying but generally strong ability. Gerstein and the Jesuit priest are especially well portrayed as men of deep conviction.