Judge Gordon Sullivan has a difficult time concentrating.
Two men. Two worlds. One cause.
There can be little doubt that the Holocaust was one of the darkest nights in human history. However, there's a paradox at play, for when humanity is at its blackest, it seems that the good light shines all the brighter. In times like World War II, even the simplest gesture takes on a much brighter, more luminous good. And we've heard stories of those individuals (like Oskar Schindler) and groups (the French Resistance) who did what they could in the face of German aggression. Unsurprisingly, the most popular stories are those of success: Schindler saved several thousand Jews, the French Resistance went on to rule post-war France. We hear less, however, about those who tried valiantly to do something but didn't succeed. This is the premise of Amen. The film deals with a high-ranking Nazi officer who attempts to inform the Catholic Church of the use of toxic gas with tragic results. It's a hard-hitting film, but not always satisfying dramatically.
Facts of the Case
Historically, we know that Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukor, The White Ribbon) was a Waffen-SS officer in the Institute of Hygiene. He discovered that a gas was being tested on human subjects. With no one to turn to in his own government, Gerstein attempted to inform the Catholic hierarchy (since many high-ranking Nazis were Catholic and/or Christian), hoping that Pope Pius XII's media profile could bring some solution Here the waters get murky, historically speaking. Staunch Catholics will argue that the message never reached high enough in the Catholic order, while those more critical of the Church claim that Pius heard and did nothing (likely because of a long-simmering anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church). Writer-director Costa-Gavras falls on the latter side of the scale. His film documents Gerstein's attempts, with sympathetic priest Father Riccardo (Mathieu Kassovitz, La Haine), to inform the Catholic Church of the impending genocide.
Chances are we'll never know the full extent of the Catholic Church's involvement in the possible covering up of Nazi war crimes. Either the evidence isn't there, or there's no compelling reason for the Vatican to admit the extent of their involvement. And even if they were entirely forthcoming, there's very little chance that the motivations will be clear, like a blatant admission of anti-Semitism. So, Amen. weaves its story around the facts that we do know: Gerstein did try to contact the Church hierarchy, he didn't succeed, and when the war was over he left a detailed memo about his attempts before committing suicide.
Amen. doesn't particularly try to lambast the Catholic Church, nor does it try to exonerate the Church fathers. Instead, Amen. weaves its story around the historical record to show us what happens when people turn a blind eye to what's not directly in front of their face. The charitable interpretation is that those who heard Gerstein's story simply couldn't believe that anyone would be evil enough to put such a plan in motion. The less charitable interpretation is that long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Jews led some members of the Church to find Hitler's aims acceptable even if his means were distasteful. Amen. threads a kind of middle path. Costa-Gavras takes the view that it's more human nature to ignore what's not immediately obvious, especially if it's a monstrous truth.
So, it's not like the Catholic Church gets off light in Amen., but Costa-Gavras does balance his portrayal of a blind-eye-turning Church by giving us Father Riccardo. Mathieu Kassovitz plays him as committed and devout, as disturbed by the Church's response as Gerstein is by those in his hierarchy. It gives the Church a human face and Gerstein someone to interact with on a dramatic level. Too often "man against the system" movies just feature one person attacking some bureaucracy, but Amen. makes the right choice by giving us a second "hero."
The film also doesn't skimp on emotional impact. Millions of lives hang in the balance of Gerstein's attempts, and just about every viewer is aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the Nazi's use of gas. Costa-Gavras marshals all his considerable skill to make us feel the pain that Gerstein goes through in trying to put a stop to the atrocities and meeting dead ends and dead eyes instead.
The film also gets a decent Blu-ray release. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is solid, with an appreciably film-like presentation. The transfer showcases a lot of close-ups, especially of faces, and detail is abundant throughout. Colors are pretty good, though not always the most saturated. Black levels are fairly deep and consistent, and no significant artifacts show up to mar the film. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly good. Much of the film is dialogue-driven, so expect a lot of clear center-channel activity. Surround occasionally get some use, mostly to establish some of the larger settings.
Extras start with a 1996 TV episode that looks at the relationship between Pius and the Nazis. Rarely does a supplement (especially one not produced for the film in question) so completely help give context for the feature. This documentary gives us a much more historically-grounded look at Pius XII and his relationship with the Nazis, and offers a bit of contrast to the dramatic license taken in Amen. Then, we get a commentary with Costa-Gavras and critic Wade Major. The pair discuss everything from Costa-Gavras' inspiration to the changes that had to be made along the way. The disc also includes the 2014 re-release trailer for the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a couple of problems with Amen. The first is that there isn't much in the way of dramatic tension. We know that Gerstein's attempts fail, the Church doesn't really become involved in stopping the Nazis on a systematic basis, and lots and lots of people die. So Gerstein's quest is quixotic from the beginning, and that robs the film of any real suspense it might have had.
The film also has significant emotional impact, as I noted above, but the problem with that is there's no real outlet for all that emotion. We get no triumphant finish or final realization. Instead, it's just a depressing reality that millions of people were killed and so few people were willing and/or able to put a stop to it.
Amen. is a well-executed film that provides a little seen moment in world history. It sometimes lacks dramatic impact, but it makes up for it with the care it spends showing us interesting characters valiantly working for others.
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