‘Amen’ Is What Political Cinema Is All About

[12 August 2014]

By Jose Solis

Costa-Gavras has never been one to shy away from controversial topics; in fact, one could even say his career is completely based on pushing boundaries when it comes to political matters. In Z, he thinly disguised the murder of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis and turned it into an incendiary thriller that would go on to become so popular it became only the second film not in the English language to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Years later, in Missing, he would use Hollywood stars Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon to comment on the human rights violations that occurred during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. In Music Box, Jessica Lange plays an attorney who discovers her father was involved in Nazi activities. If his films have a recurring theme, it’s the study of how supposedly good people react when faced against totalitarianism or fascism. He likes to force the audience into wondering what would they do if they were in this situation, and what often makes his work brilliant is that he even makes us wonder if we’re among the “good” guys to begin with.

Gavras usually makes just a handful of films each decade, but every time he picks a subject matter relevant, something that will help him push more buttons. In 2003, with Amen he once again touched on the subject of the Holocaust, but gave it a different tone when instead of merely condemning the Nazis, he condemned the Catholic church’s lack of involvement in preventing the war, even going as far as suggesting that by staying away from the conflict they were sinning through omission.

Amen tells the story of Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), an SS officer working for the Nazi Hygiene Institute, who would go on to invent Zyklon B, a hydrogen cyanide mixture done for the purpose of helping purify water, which ended up being used instead as an extermination method in the concentration camps. Horrified by this discovery, Gerstein would go on to establish communication with a Jesuit priest by the name of Riccardo Fontana (Matthieu Kassovitz) in the hopes that his concerns would reach Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iures) and that he would do something in return.

Written by Jean-Claude Grumberg and Gavras himself, Amen sometimes tends to feel slightly preachy, with the characters having grandiose dialogues that sound forced, as if the screenwriters were inspired by every great humanist quote recited before. This is especially disconcerting, considering that while Gerstein was indeed a real life character, the young priest and many other characters were invented for dramatic purposes. In fact, there exists some doubt as to whether Gerstein was truly the heroic person history has gone on to suggest, or if he was in fact an opportunist trying to get away with leniency from the Allies once the war was over, something that has been supported by the fact that he allegedly committed suicide when he was captured at the end of the war.

However, regardless of this (not that it’s entirely unimportant), it’s essential to remember that Gavras has always been interested in morality tales; perhaps the fact that his earliest ones were harsher and less didactic makes one judge the latter ones with more cynicism. In Amen, Gavras displays a humanism that was never as obvious in his earlier films. The thrills of something like Z and the cruel matter-of-factness of Missing are replaced for a more introspective melancholy, which makes Amen feel more personal than anything he did up until that point. Often, throughout the film, it is as if Gavras is having a change of heart in front of our very eyes.

This is also supported by the similar tone of all the performers, who are less passionate, wearier, and lacking in malice and suspicion. Watching the film, one never doubts Gerstein in the way you do when reading about his life and relying on other historical accounts. Gavras cleverly makes us empathize with someone, who whether he had previous knowledge of what he was aiding in or not, remained a Nazi until the very end.

This makes for a film that’s easy to watch but that ends up haunting you for days after you’ve seen it. Gavras places his characters in a dilemma that whether we like it or not get us involved and ideally would spark discussion among viewers. Isn’t this essentially what political cinema should be all about? Gavras hasn’t made a film as powerful and problematic as Amen in well over a decade, recently becoming more fascinated with the problems of bureaucracy in Europe, and it’s about time he went back and did one more. The world could certainly use more of his films.

Amen features few but worthy extras including a theatrical trailer, an interview with Gavras and a documentary that studies the context of the story in the film, particularly concentrating on the relation between Jews and Pope Pius XII.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184420-amen/