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July 18, 2003 - Image 61

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-07-18

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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Political drama based on actual events falls short.

MICHAEL FOX

Special to the Jewish News

IC

urt Gerstein was that rarest
of men, an SS officer with a
conscience. However, the
Nazi machine and the inaction of
the Allies and the pope dwarfed his
stalwart opposition to the murder
of Jews.
Gerstein's story would
seem ideally suited to the
veteran European director
Costa-Gavras, who vividly
linked personal responsibility and
the abuse of political power in such
compelling films as Z and The

Music Box.
But saddled with a talky screen-
play that often reduces the charac-
ters to earnest, speechifying cut-
outs, Costa-Gavras' Amen is only
intermittently involving.
Adapted from Rolf Hochhuth's
controversial 1962 play, The '
Deputy, Amen belies its stage roots
with an excess of weighted conver-
sations and a shortage of arresting
images.
A chemist who proudly concocted
a way for soldiers to disinfect water
for drinking, Gerstein (played by
Ulrich Tukur) was stunned to learn
firsthand that the SS was converting
his Zyklon B crystals into poison-
ous gas for use at Treblinka,
Auschwitz and numerous other
death camps.
Gerstein considered fleeing
Germany with his family, but
decided that he could be more
effective as a mole and a witness. "I
shall be the eyes of God in that
hell," he declares.
His only ally in Amen is a young
Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, a
fictional character and stand-in for
those clergymen who did stand up
to the Nazis.
Fontana (French actor Mathieu
Kassovitz of Amelie), whose father is
on the pope's staff, unhesitatingly
resolves to bring Gerstein's revelations
directly to the pontiff's attention.
That requires a succession of
steps, of course, and the Church
moves slowly. Although Amen does-
n't absolve the pope, it suggests that

a...

he was afraid of inciting Hitler into
accelerating the persecution of
Catholics in Germany or even
attacking Vatican City.
During one of Father Fontana's vis-
its to the Vatican, an American diplo-
mat is conveniently on hand.
Although the scene serves the valuable
purpose of reminding viewers the
U.S. government was aware that the
Nazis were exterminating the
Jews of Europe, it's contrived
and clumsy.
While Gerstein and
Fontana strategize and the pope's
advisers stall, trains relentlessly
crisscross the landscape, hauling
Jews to their deaths. For all intents
and purposes, though, we see
almost no Jews, mirroring how the
moral authorities of the age closed
their eyes to the Holocaust.
For his part, Gerstein tries to
impede the implementation of the
Final Solution in small and ulti-
mately meaningless ways. Falsely
claiming that a load of Zyklon B
cans is leaking, he orders that it be
hauled away immediately and
buried.
Despite the extraordinary risks he
took, Gerstein was plainly more
successful in surviving the war than
in saving Jewish lives.
In addition to Gerstein and
Father Fontana, Amen focuses on an
opportunistic and amoral doctor
who both avails himself of
Gerstein's expertise and amuses
himself with the officer's less-than-
enthusiastic participation in the
genocide.
Never made to pay for his crimes,
the doctor represents the dozens of
Nazis who thrived after the war on
the American or Russian payrolls,
or in Argentina.
Gerstein, however, surrendered to
the French in April 1945, providing
a detailed report of atrocities he
witnessed. Instead of being hailed
as a witness, he was charged as a
war criminal and tossed in a mili-
tary prison.
There's a coda to Gerstein's story,
which Costa-Gavras abruptly tosses
off Like most everything else in Amen,
it left me feeling unsatisfied.

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2003

61

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