Reviewing the Holocaust: Painful Reminders of Horror

Constantin Costa-Gavras’ Amen , from a screenplay by Mr. Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg, adapted from the play The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, has come crashing into the new year as one of several cinematic reconsiderations of Hitler’s Nazi Holocaust, spawned, it seems, by the virulent plague of anti-Semitism afflicting not only the German people, but all of Europe and all of Christianity. Yet even now, almost 60 years since the Nazi death camps were opened to Allied cinematographers (among them Alfred Hitchcock and George Stevens), there are many inhibitions at work in any attempt to deal on film with this horrifying event. In the aftermath, there has been an enormous amount of guilt expressed over what was and was not done at the time, and by whom, and for what reasons or rationalizations.

Into this vortex of virtually universal culpability-with even God called to account in somewritings-Mr. Costa-Gavras has chosen to point an accusatory finger primarily at the papacy of Pius XII in the director’s familiar prosecutorial style, for which he has become famous in such explicitly political films as Z (1969), The Confession (1970), State of Siege (1973), Special Section (1975), Missing (1982), Hanna K. (1983) and Music Box (1989). Although most of his polemical arguments have been slanted toward the left, he displayed considerable courage in denouncing the Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia with The Confession , the political climate in Paris film circles being what it was at the time. Still, he has remained controversial as a filmmaker not so much for the positions he has taken as for the sheer melodramatic excitement he has generated out of the injustices of both the left and the right. By being so entertaining, he has managed to offend the sensibilities of the politically inclined, who are suspicious of anything lacking seriousness and sobriety.

Amen is not a graphically inflammatory film, with mounds of corpses and hollow-eyed starving survivors. Mr. Costa-Gavras and Mr. Grumberg have decided that less is more, and have illustrated the machinery of the Holocaust with recurring images of trains closed-and presumably full-going in one direction, then open and empty returning in the other. The actual gassing of Jews is indirectly indicated by SS officers in the process of peering into peepholes. When conscience-stricken SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) reacts with shock and horror, the stage is set for his futile effort to persuade anyone who will listen that unspeakable atrocities are being committed against the Jews on a scale few people can even imagine. Gerstein’s only ally is Father Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Jesuit priest with deep family ties in the Vatican. Gerstein is a real-life historical figure, but Fontana is a fictional composite of several Catholic priests who tried as best they could to save as many Jews as possible.

When The Deputy opened as a play in Berlin in 1963, it was condemned by many for what was then perceived as virulent anti-Catholicism. At about the same time, a critic of anti-Kennedy bigotry among some liberals remarked that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. (One might say today that anti-Zionism is the approved anti-Semitism of the new left.)

Now, 40 years after The Deputy , the church finds itself in the midst of an entirely different moral scandal that, ironically, may reduce the shock effect of Amen and its denunciation of the papacy’s response to the Holocaust. Is Amen thereby out of date? Hardly. The term “Holocaust” has been tossed around too loosely in recent decades; it’s been applied to any savage massacre on any continent. More people were murdered under the banner of the hammer and sickle than were ever disposed of under the reign of the swastika, and yet there remains something profoundly unique about what happened in the Nazi death camps, and none its nuances should ever be forgotten. Of course, it can be argued that the Nazi Holocaust is unique only because the enemies of the regime arrived on the scene as victors with cameras soon enough to photograph the evidence of the crimes against humanity. In this gruesome context, one picture is indeed worth millions of words in the court of public opinion.

The most charismatic of the villains in Amen is an S.S. medical specialist known only as the “Doctor” (Ulrich Mühe). He serves the same devious function in the narrative as Ralph Fiennes’ cynical Nazi served in taunting the humane, idealistic Schindler of Liam Neeson in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Similarly, the Doctor in Amen seems to cling to Gerstein like Velcro, partly to provide suspense about the possibility of Gerstein being caught in the midst of his covert anti-Holocaust activities, and partly to amuse the audience with the sick humor of wittily articulated evil. After all, from Milton onward, the devil has always had the best lines.

Amen is an unusually riveting experience for a story with an inevitable, dismal ending. Gerstein will fail in his efforts. After the war, he presents his anti-Nazi evidence to the Allied authorities, but because he’s an S.S. officer, he’s imprisoned as a war criminal. He’s found hanged in his cell, either a despairing suicide or the victim of unrepentant Nazis in the prison. Nonetheless, the information he has provided is later crucial to the prosecution in the Nüremberg trials. Father Fontana is so disillusioned by the Pope’s cowardly hypocrisy that he sews on a Star of David and follows the Italian Jews on the train to Auschwitz. And the Doctor? With the assistance of a Vatican prelate, he escapes to Argentina.

To avoid anachronism, Mr. Costa-Gavras and Mr. Grumberg tell less than they know about the historical background of the period. The death of the anti-Nazi Pius XI in 1939, and the selection of the controversially racist and anti-Semitic Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, also the papal secretary of state, as Pope Pius XII, radically changed the moral and political atmosphere in the Vatican, but the characters in the film can’t be expected to know that. From our perspective, it’s crystal clear that one man at the top rather than another can make a world of difference (think Bush versus Gore). Even with all its self-imposed restrictions and omissions, Amen is a must-see.

Eyewitness to History

AndréHellerandOthmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary elevates the talking-head nonfiction-film category to a new summit as Traudl Junge, Hitler’s last secretary, recalls her experiences as an unprepossessing, 22-year-old virgin from Bavaria whofoundherselfinapolitefather/daughter relationship with one of history’s most infamous monsters. Mr. Heller and Mr. Schmiderer were both born after the Holocaust, but Mr. Heller, a noted international multimedia artist, has bitter memories of a father driven to a slow death of despair from survivor’s guilt-much of his extended family died in the death camps.

Traudl Junge died from cancer on Feb. 11, 2002, in Munich, just as Blind Spot had its world premiere at the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival and just days after the publication of her memoir, To the Final Hour . She was 81 years old. Mr. Heller has observed that Junge knew she was dying and that she finally granted a face-to-face interview after decades of refusal because she wanted the film to serve as a last will and testament about a period in her life for which she felt never-ending guilt. There’s reportedly little that’s completely unknown to historians in Junge’s testimony, but for most of the rest of us, this film serves as a spectacular revelation.

I’m reminded of something Truffaut once mentioned about Hitler using, throughout his life, a hollowed-out mattress on which to sleep. Truffaut’s point about this intimate detail is that when you begin thinking about it, you can no longer deny Hitler’s humanity. He becomes one of us, with all our childhood frailties and vulnerabilities intact. Junge notes almost casually that Hitler didn’t seem to know very much about women: He couldn’t understand why Bormann would cheat on his beautiful but boring wife with less attractive women.

Even in her naïveté, Junge caught glimpses of Hitler’s ruthless political fanaticism. He lost his temper when a visitor to his bunker complained about the treatment of Jews in a transport train in the Amsterdam station in Holland. The woman visitor was forbidden ever to visit again. Later, when another objection was raised to his policies, Hitler stormed that he was saving Europe and the rest of the world from the evils of Communism (a position not totally at odds with influential opinion in Washington, London and the Vatican).

All in all, the last days of Hitler’s life make vivid listening and subtitle-reading-the memories of a professional journalist with a shame-inducing past that she wishes to unload from a heavy heart. She should have known more, she should have done more. She has long realized that, but it’s always too late to alter the past. All that could be done was to exorcise it. For myself, I believed every word, including “a,” “and” and “the.” Why should a dying witness to history lie?

Some pundit recently remarked that the two great tragedies of the 20th century are that Stalin lied about what he was doing and everyone believed him, whereas Hitler told the truth about what he was doing and no one believed him. In Manhattan , Woody Allen’s fictional alter ego complains that he’s never had a relationship that has lasted as long as Hitler’s with Eva Braun. With Hitler, it seems, however, that fidelity may have gone hand in hand with celibacy, according to Junge’s observation that Hitler hated to be touched.

When you combine Amen , Blind Spot , Menno Meyjes’ Max (in which Noah Taylor plays, masterfully, a young Hitler more adept at designing swastika paraphernalia for a burgeoning National Socialist Party than at fitting into the modernist ferment of the art world) and Roman Polanski’s virtuoso overture to genocide in Poland, The Pianist , you have a composite portrait of the very understandable forces that were at work to produce a crime against humanity on the scale of the Holocaust.

Still, everyone must decide on a very personal basis which, if any, of these painful reminders of horror are worth seeing. In each instance, it’s not so much new knowledge that’s involved, but an emotional recapitulation of what many of us have long known or suspected, packaged in new artistic forms. Many will ignore these works out of uninformed indifference, or perhaps out of active hostility to any humanistic “message.” Most young people do not flock to spectacles smacking of cautionary history lessons. If for no other reason, those of us who truly care about history and justice will patronize these films to support their effort to enlighten and civilize the body politic.