dir. Costa-Gavras

Opens Fri April 25

Hollywood Theater

After directing The Pianist, Roman Polanski noted that he refrained from making a Holocaust film for so long because he didn't want to be heavy-handed in dealing with a topic already brimming with drama. Director Costa-Gavras, a Greek Marxist, could have taken a cue from Polanski while making Amen., his oafish film about SS Agent Kurt Gerstein, who develops Zyklon B to purify water, then discovers it's being used to exterminate the Jews. It's a topic bursting open with dramatic potential--including the age-old story of a man and his conscience. Yet Costa-Gravas misses his chance to direct a subtle, affecting film, instead delivering a skittish, overly dramatic yet strangely impotent look at history's most shameful chapter.

This is unfortunate, because the story behind Amen. is quite interesting. Ulrich Tukur's Gerstein is a naîve SS Officer/scientist who discovers the truth about the Holocaust. He appeals to church elders--both his own Protestant leaders, and those in the Vatican--to alert the people of Germany, believing that once they know of the atrocities, they will valiantly rise up against the Nazis. No one listens or believes his story, save for a young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, who takes it upon himself to alert the Pope of the Jewish genocide.

The film's focus, wrongly, is not quite Gerstein's strange and conscious-wrecking double identity (despite being horrified by the annihilation, he stays on with the Nazis so that he may bear witness). Rather, it's an indictment of the Vatican's willful, often politically motivated silence about the Holocaust. You can't blame Costa-Gavras for making an anti-Catholic movie--one particularly affecting scene depicts the Vatican's cardinals slurping decadently on lobster as Fontana shows them a map of concentration camps. But you can blame him for the hokey, made for TV movie-like, symbolic imagery, including several shots of full and empty cattle trains heading ominously to their destination. And you can blame him for the broad-stroked "good vs. evil" patina of the film, depicting Catholic tyranny over Gerstein and Fontana's martyr-like ends. (Gerstein's real-life bravery/moral dilemma is far more interesting; however, in Amen., it's not even mentioned that he in fact joined the SS to infiltrate it.) Though the film is sometimes lacking in both cogence and personality, it's still fairly entertaining in a way it kind of shouldn't be. But for a dose of historical reality, you might want to hit the library.