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Jewish Journal

Silent Witnesses

Costa-Gavras' "Amen." brings to light the story of those who, during the Holocaust, saw all but said nothing.


by Tom Tugend

January 30, 2003 | 7:00 pm

The film "Amen." focuses not on the victims of the Holocaust, nor its perpetrators, but on the passive bystanders who allowed the killing machine to do its work by their silence.

"How was it possible for people to see their neighbors suddenly disappear and not ask what happened to them?" asked Costa-Gavras, the French director and co-writer of "Amen.," speaking by phone from Paris. (The veteran filmmaker, who was born in Greece, is listed as Constantin Gavras on his passport, but his screen credits read Costa-Gavras, without a first name.)

Based on "The Deputy" by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, "Amen." is a withering indictment of the wartime Pope Pius XII and the Vatican establishment, who were well-informed about the extermination of the Jews, but chose to avert their eyes.  Costa-Gavras believes that the Vatican, which feared Stalin more than Hitler, could have reduced the Holocaust death toll by a forthright condemnation, and even stopped the Final Solution before it started.

He cites former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as saying that if Catholic and Protestant bishops had formally denounced Hitler's persecution of Jews early in his reign, the Holocaust could have been prevented.  That the bishops were not without such influence is shown in the opening of the film, when their protests halted the Nazi euthanasia of the mentally retarded.

"Amen." has two true heroes, men of conscience and courage, who fought their own societies and superiors in a vain attempt to stop the slaughter. The more unlikely one was an actual person, SS officer Kurt Gerstein, a chemist who helped develop Zyklon B for purifying drinking water and disinfecting barracks.

When Gerstein, played by Ulrich Tukur in the English-speaking but all German cast movie, discovered that the pellets were instead used to gas Jews, he tried desperately to enlist the Swedes, the Americans and the Vatican in publicizing and halting the mass extermination.

Gerstein is a fervent Protestant and his only ally is Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a fictional character meant to represent all priests who sought to aid the Jews.

Besides the few heroes and the many bystanders, there is one unmitigated evil person, identified only as The Doctor (Ulrich Muehe), modeled on Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz's "Angel of Death."

"The most cynical of all were the Nazi doctors," Costa-Gavras said. "They were trained to help people, and they used their knowledge to destroy people."

The director avoids showing the stacked corpses and mass shootings of other Holocaust-themed movies, "because the reality of the camps or the extermination is beyond the reach of film," he said.

Instead, he prefers to mirror the horror in the expressions of the observers, as Nazi officers watch the gassing of Jews in a shower room through a peep hole. The Doctor smirks, while Gerstein is aghast and tries to retain his composure.

The Catholic Church is understandably not happy about the film, and has taken particular umbrage at the movie poster for "Amen." It shows a blood-red swastika with one of its arms extending into a Christian cross.

"To twist the meaning of a symbol that represents the faith of so many men and women shows an unacceptable lack of respect," said a Vatican spokesman said. Costa-Gavras, who was raised Greek Orthodox but is now an agnostic, has rejected the protest.

Costa-Gavras has made the political thriller his trademark, including "Z," "Stage of Siege," "Missing" and "Music Box."  He drew considerable heat for his 1983 film "Hanna K.," set in Israel, which Jewish critics accused of pro-Palestinian bias. The filmmaker denies the charges, saying that he was merely trying to advance the imperative that Jews and Arabs must learn to live together.

Like Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," "Amen." shows that filmmakers' fascination with the Holocaust era seems only to intensify with the passage of time.  "Every year, we discover new elements about that period," Costa-Gavras said. "Every writer and director in every generation will revisit it and try to understand how a cultured country was able to create officially an industry for killing other people.

"We try to understand how 40,000 people, men and women, for four years got up every morning and then spent the day killing Jews."

"Amen." is screening at three Laemmle Theatres: Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and the Town Center in Encino.

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