A scene from 'Amen.'
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**1/2 stars
130 minutes | Unrated
LIMITED: Friday, March 7, 2003
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Starring Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Muhe, Michel Duchaussoy, Ion Caramitru, Antje Schmidt, Hanns Zieschler, Marcel Iures

Read our 1999 interview with director Costa-Gavras

  • WWII/Holocaust
  • Costa-Gavras
  • Ulrich Tukur
  • Mathieu Kassovitz

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    Compelling performances largely redeem sermonizing Holocaust drama about a conscience-stricken Nazi and Papal complaisance

    By Rob Blackwelder

    Relentlessly heavy-handed but quite compelling nonetheless, "Amen" is a loosely fact-based drama about a German SS officer's clandestine attempts to stem the Holocaust, and about the complaisance he encountered when trying to alert the world -- and more specifically the Vatican.

    Adapted in part from the eyewitness accounts written by Nazi lieutenant and chemist Kurt Gerstein (played by Ulrich Tukur) while in a French prison after World War II, the film asks the question, What's a newly-advanced Nazi with a conscience to do when exposed to the horror of Jews being gassed by the thousands with chemicals he's been ordered to provide?

    In "Amen," the answer is that he confides in a fictionalized, idealistic young priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) with direct connections to Pope Pius XII, so cowriter-director Costa-Gavras can get the pontiff on record saying nothing more than "My heart prays for the victims," while his cardinals deflect follow-up questions.

    "The Holy Father is very concerned that Hitler stop Stalin, then sign a treaty with the Americans," the heroic clergyman is told in a matter-of-fact manner.

    There's more to "Amen" than condemning the Catholic Church for its well-documented silent knowledge of the atrocities in Nazi death camps. But instead of just telling the story and letting the events speak for themselves, Costa-Gavras (whose 1997 US film "Mad City" was a similarly overwrought screed against tabloid journalism) treats scene after scene as a soapbox for pronouncements and denouncements. The James Bond-villain-like callousness of most everyone with the power to make a difference is overplayed ("If we concentrate on saving Jews, it will slow our war effort," says an American ambassador), and that by itself is enough to make the movie feel like a marathon of proselytization.

    Luckily the moving, memorable lead performances keep the picture grounded. German actor Tukur (who recently appeared in Steven Soderbergh's "Solaris") fully personifies the dread he faces while maintaining his character's facade of normalcy. Gerstein does what he can by way of sabotage, sending to the prison camps weakened gas that won't act as quickly, thereby slowing down the murder rate. He tries to get word out of Germany through several people he hopes he can trust (yet, inexplicably, he never discusses anything with his worried wife). And when asked why he doesn't resign from the SS, he replies with a shudder in his voice, "There must be a witness."

    Kassovitz (a big star in France and best known in the US as Audrey Tautou's object of desire in "Amélie") is compassionately riveting as Father Riccardo Fontana, who is a composite character meant to represent all the priests who fought against the Nazi persecution of Jews. His dogged pursuit of an audience with the Pope and his ultimate frustration -- which leads to martyring himself as a death camp inmate -- is the film's emotional lynchpin.

    "Amen" has other plusses (the score is beautiful and tense) and minuses (shot in English with mostly French and German actors, dialogue is sometimes dubbed or badly delivered) -- and it ends with a rather confusing (or perhaps badly-translated) text-scroll about Gerstein's ultimate fate. It says the man, who died in prison soon after writing his detailed accounts, was "rehabilitated 20 years later" instead of "exonerated 20 year later."

    But how deeply this parable affects moviegoers may depend entirely on how each individual feels about the director's sermonizing narrative tactics.


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