Amen

on January 24, 2003 by Wade Major
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Greek-born filmmaker Konstantinos Gavras, best known to the world as Costa-Gavras, may very well be the last great filmmaker of conscience cinema, a genre that he almost single-handedly created with his landmark 1968 film "Z." It might even be contended that Costa-Gavras is the only one who has ever even been able to make such films work on a dramatic level, free of the self-importance to which other filmmakers feel obliged to chain their characters. Not that they have always succeeded--some of his pictures have been downright failures. But what cannot be taken from Costa-Gavras on any level, and what always makes his films worth watching, is an unfailing determination to present complex heroes and heroines possessed of obsessively principled devotion that is both credible and challenging.

Ironically, Costa-Gavras' newest film, "Amen," marks the first time that he has tackled head-on the subject of the Holocaust, a topic with which he previously only flirted after-the-fact in the Joe Eszterhas-scripted "The Music Box." The English-language "Amen" is loosely adapted from Rolf Hochhuth's fact-based 1962 play "The Representative" and centers on the exploits of expert hygienist Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a deeply religious man who has ascended to the position of officer in the SS primarily because his skills are so badly needed to forestall disease and illness among the troops. But when he discovers that the disinfectant Zyklon B is being ordered in large quantities for the more diabolical purpose of exterminating Jews, Protestantism instantly overtakes patriotism and Gerstein makes it his crusade to inform the world.

His initial strategy is to leak word of the Holocaust to both the German populace and the outside world in hopes that popular outcry will be able to stop it in much the same way that previous, more limited persecutions were arrested. It soon becomes evident, however, that stopping an intended genocide already well underway will require more than a mere street protest. Unable to motivate protestant leaders paralyzed by fear of reprisals, Gerstein turns to the Catholic Church in hopes that a firm statement from Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iures) might stop the killing. Though this route proves no less frustrating, Gerstein wins the trust and heart of an idealistic young priest named Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz) who, through familial connections at the Vatican, believes he can alert the Pope accordingly.

"Amen" is, at least for a time, a gripping and emotionally powerful picture that shows promise of evolving into a kind of "Schindler's List," riding heavily upon a passionate performance from Tukur and the ominous recurring imagery of boxcars both filled and empty, tirelessly transporting entire families and communities to their doom. Unfortunately, the story isn't able to find much narrative latitude once Gerstein hands the ball off to Fontana. The futility of their joint attempts to alert the world, along with the sobering revelations (the accuracy of which are still debated) that Pius XII and others moderated their condemnation of the Nazi regime out of broader political and religious considerations, is compelling fodder for discussion but scarcely sufficient to satisfy the dramatic demands of the film's second half. Also problematic is the movie's attempt to generate some form of suspense from a historic episode as familiar and well-documented as the Holocaust. Only when Fontana himself hitches a ride to a concentration camp near the end does "Amen" recapture some of its initial momentum--a powerful denouement that's still too little, too late to help the movie fully right itself.

Still, even flawed Costa-Gavras is generally worth watching, if for nothing more substantial than the painstaking care he gives to every facet of the filmmaking process. That there are more important issues being dealt with here is enough to make "Amen" worthy of consideration, despite its shortcomings. The all-European cast of mostly unknown German actors is a wonderful touch that gives the picture an added air of authenticity above and beyond already impeccable production values. From Tukur to the always-enjoyable Kassovitz to the great Marcel Iures whose role as Pius XII is in striking contrast to his other recent turn as the calculating Nazi POW camp commandant in "Hart's War," "Amen's" makers and cast clearly believe that they are serving a higher purpose in telling the story. Even though the movie falls short of realizing that purpose, the mere fact that it even has one places it on admirable footing. Starring Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Mühe, Michel Duchaussoy, Ion Caramitru, Marcel Iures, Friedrich von Thun and Antje Schmidt. Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. Written by Constantin Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg. Produced by Claude Berri, Andrei Boncea and Michèle Ray-Gavras. A KG Productions and Mediapro Pictures production. A Kino release. Period drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 132 min

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