If pedophile priests and the whole condoms-are-evil thing don’t have you shaking your head in despair at the Catholic Church and its insistence that it holds a moral high ground, then here’s some retroactive fodder for you: The Vatican knew about the extermination of Jews by the Nazi regime during World War II and did nothing to try to stop it. That’s not exactly a newsflash, but the Church’s complicity-by-inaction in the Holocaust hasn’t been depicted on film as it is in Costa-Garvas’ Amen. In a clear, unsentimental voice, this thoughtful film turns an infuriating and frustrating predicament into a thriller of the conscience.
Chemist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur: Solaris) is a newly promoted lieutenant in the SS when he discovers that his plan to use Zyklon B gas to decontaminate drinking water and barracks for German soldiers is being perverted into something horrendously depraved. When his Nazi superiors proudly take him on a tour of the “work camps” they’ve set up in Poland, he witnesses firsthand the gassing of entire families, and it horrifies him to the core.
What do you do? Do you turn and run, escape the abomination? Or do you stay and try to effect change from within? A patriotic German and a devout Protestant, Gerstein has no thought of resigning his commission — instead, he works from the inside to subvert the mass murder, in an effort both to save lives and to salvage the honor of Germany, sure to be irreparably sullied when the truth becomes known. The little he can accomplish — sabotaging gas shipments, for instance — doesn’t do much to slow the Nazi death machine, though, and so he tries to get help from outside. Though not a Catholic, he knows the influence the Church wields, but he is ignored and dismissed by Catholic officials. Only one young priest, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz: Amelie), has any interest in hearing what he has to say and in seeing the evidence he’s amassed. The lack of proof to the rumors that the Nazis have been killing Jews and other undesirables had been the excuse the Vatican had proffered for remaining quiet on the issue — but it’s doing all it can to prevent being presented with the proof at hand.
Based on Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), which is in turn based on the testimony of the real Kurt Gerstein — whose documentation and written declaration were the first powerful authentication of the Holocaust — this is the kind of film that leaves you feeling both angry and powerless to channel that anger. Which is, I’m sure, Costa-Garvas’s aim, to replicate the emotional experience of Gerstein and Fontana (who is here a fictional amalgam of the many low-ranking Catholic priests who fought the Nazis). Faced with the inexorable inertia of an institution more concerned with preserving itself than in carrying out its own self-appointed mission, they persevered even beyond the point at which they’d lost hope. Costa-Garvas gives us an entree into their states of mind by creating an atmosphere of despair around each man, not by repeating images of the camps we’ve seen in other films, for Gerstein and Fontana were, for the most part, physically removed from that environment, but by showing us the cold landscape around them in their daily lives. When Gerstein’s first witnesses the gassings in the camp, we don’t need to see what’s happening in the chamber — we see the sadistic glee with which the other Nazi officers embrace the killing, and the cool suspicion with which they respond to Gerstein’s lack of same. The vast interiors of the Vatican, where Fontana desperately tries to have Gerstein’s voice heard, seem to echo with uncaring disregard, the flocks of cardinals keeping reality at bay with their processions and their formality.
The most powerful recurring image in this quietly commanding film is an unexpected one: trains of empty stock cars rattling across the European countryside, which seem to haunt Gerstein wherever he goes. Trains jam-packed with people is a terrible image, of course, but hope is not entirely lost while life remains. But an empty train means that its cargo has been delivered, and we — and Gerstein — know that an empty train will soon be full yet again. Time, it appears, crushingly to Gerstein, will never run out for his seemingly futile quest, because it appears that the trains will run on forever.