PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Amen' Is What Political Cinema Is All About

Troublesome though the implications of Amen are, it is nonetheless a fine example of Costa-Gavras at his most incendiary.


Director: Costa-Gavras
Cast: Matthieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Tukur, Marcel Iures
Distributor: Cohen
Rated: NR
US DVD release date: 2014-06-10

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.