The Pope, The Führer, A Secret Shame

So many movies about the Holocaust, so few moviegoers lining up to see them. My guess is that the human ostriches who avoided The Grey Zone , Max and The Pianist will also avoid Amen and Blind Spot-Hitler’s Secretary , the same way hawks hankering for a war with Iraq are running in the opposite direction from the brilliant war film The Quiet American , because it depicts the American military in Vietnam as savage mercenaries. Ah, to die blissfully ignorant of life, literature and art. It’s a luxury I’m grateful I cannot afford.

In Amen , the renowned Greek director Constantin Costa-Gavras-no stranger to controversy-takes on the complacency of the Catholic Church in the slaughter of six million Jews in World War II, and shows the efforts of one guilt-ridden SS officer and one brave Jesuit priest to appeal to the Pope to intervene and change the course of history. The failure of their struggle slams another nail of disgrace into the cumulative shame of this already battle-weary institution. Damage control must be working overtime.

Based on Rolf Hochhuth’s powerful play The Deputy (also translated as The Representative ), this conscientious film suffers from lapses in coherence, too much earnest preachiness and subtitles that are annoyingly intrusive, but the material is urgent and worthy. It’s amazing how little people knew-or cared to know-of Hitler’s secret plans, even in Germany. This is the story of a German officer named Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), newly assigned to the task of purifying water for the troops, who first awakens from his misguided patriotic slumber when his handicapped niece is gassed in a plan to purify the Aryan race by wiping out undesirables. Millions of innocent people were executed in this manner because they were labeled “unproductive.” The SS officer, also an acclaimed civilian chemist, gets his second shock when he’s forced to visit the extermination chamber of a death camp in Poland and discovers the same Zyklon B pellets he’s been using to disinfect the drinking water are being used to gas Jews by the thousands.

Shocked and shaken, Gerstein reveals the secrets he’s witnessed to a foreign journalist, hoping that when the news reaches the masses in print, the German people will revolt. But the journalist, like the Americans, demands more proof. Gerstein tries to delay and sabotage the project, even claiming that the cannisters of poison gas leak. In the end, nobody will believe him. All reports of genocide are ignored by both the neutral Swedish consulate and the German Protestant community; even his own father ridicules him. His only ally is Father Riccardo (Mathieu Kassovitz), an idealistic young priest who also happens to be a cousin of Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iures). The two men take their story to Rome, where His Holiness responds with typical saintly diffidence: “My heart bleeds for the victims. I will pray for them.”

The Pope refuses to criticize Der Führer, though the film doesn’t explain why. Even after the Nazis start rounding up and deporting Italian Jews two blocks from the Vatican, the Pope can only express “sorrow and anger” before removing himself from the conflict and delivering a Christmas message to the world as bland as tapioca. Even more baffling is why Gerstein remains in the Fatherland, loyal to the Reich, while Father Riccardo attaches a Star of David to his cassock and boards a boxcar on its way to the crematorium-and the monster in charge of the exterminations is ultimately given safe passage to Argentina.

Amen is not one of the great films by the director of Z , State of Siege and Missing , but Mr. Costa-Gavras, who turns 70 this month, has lost neither his passion for righting wrongs nor his flair for political films with powerful conviction. Amen is a complicated story with many narrative twists, and Mr. Costa-Gavras has not found a way to make all of the components meld coherently. The elements are confusing, and the jumps in time and place between the death camps and the Holy City do not help. But there’s no question that this is a subject whose historic illumination is long overdue. The character of the noble priest who fought complacency to better the world is a composite of all religious men who spoke out against crime and injustice during the war, but Gerstein is a real character, and the charges against the Catholic Church he filed for the perusal of future historians are well documented. Flawed but unmistakably moving, Amen shines a flashlight on the darkest chapter in modern history. I feel that missing these experiences when they’re available through the persuasive medium of film brings everyone closer to reliving history’s deceptions a second time around.

Traudl Talks

By comparison, Blind Spot-Hitler’s Secretary is a banal but necessary footnote. This is not a movie at all, but more of a talking-head interview with no interest in camera angles or lighting-a series of tight closeups on a sweet little old lady talking nonstop about her boss. The boss, of course, was evil’s purest personification, and the interviewee is Traudl Junge, the secretary who worked elbow to elbow with him while he massacred a massive chunk of the human race. For half a century, Junge refused to talk, but at 81 she allowed Austrian filmmakers André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer to visit her apartment with their camera, and told her story her way. Ironically, she died only a few hours after the finished film premiered in Berlin, in February 2002. No cross-examinations for old Traudl. Like the maniac she worked for, she beat her critics to the punch.

The film is so crudely made, ugly to look at and cemented in one camera position that sitting through it is a 95-minute endurance test, but who can deny the fascination of the subject? Junge was 22 years old when she was promoted from a lowly typing pool to the job of private secretary to a madman. From 1942 to the end of the war, she was a fly on the wall in a time of insanity, administering to every need of the time’s leading lunatic. After Stalingrad, she says, Hitler distrusted everyone so much that he began to invite her to share his meals because he needed a “restful change” from the political and military concerns of his inner circle. He was extremely polite. He suffered from stomach disorders and sought homeopathic remedies for his constant flatulence. He didn’t smoke or drink. He was a strict vegetarian. He was obsessed with cleanliness (which, in his case, was hardly next to godliness), washing his hands at all hours of the day and night like Lady Macbeth. He loved his dog Blondie, who shared his bed in the bunker. He feared anything sexual. And are you ready? Old Traudl insists she never overheard him make a single reference to Jews, concentration camps or the “final solution.” (She also never heard him speak the word “love.”)

You listen until you think you just might toss your cookies. Then the good stuff begins. The last days. Darkness in the bunker. Hitler goes into a state of denial, forbidding all flowers because of his terror of dead things. In a sort of sleepwalking dream, he calls together the gang for “Auld Lang Syne”-the Goebbels and their six children, poor old Eva Braun, even Blondie. “I would have preferred to give you a nicer farewell present,” he tells them. But all he’s got is cyanide pills. At the last minute, after dictating his last will and testament, he made an honest woman of Eva Braun with old Traudl as a witness, then fell into a state of hopelessness, numb and apathetic, sitting on the floor of a corridor playing with Blondie’s puppies and staring into space before committing suicide.

Whew! It’s not a comedy, although it’s as educational as it is horrifying. And Hitler apparently displayed a gallows humor of his own in those final hours. While the Soviet tanks reduced the streets above his underground hideout to chalk dust, Hitler turned to his pals and chortled, “Chin up-while we’ve still got one!” Do we believe all this? All we’ve got is Junge’s own words. Even in retrospect, she held on to her “blind spot” to the bitter end. Talking us through the haphazard steps that put her in the eye of the storm, she remains innocent and apolitical, a victim of bad timing, unable to explain what went wrong-even in her own life. Yet she was unfailingly loyal. Yes, he was a bad, bad man, like one of those Indian scalpers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but he never did anything to her . Her memories of Hitler as a father figure flow with clear-eyed detail, but when she tries to grasp her own part in the story, she becomes unfocused and tentative. Does anyone care? I don’t know, but it’s difficult to hate anyone so stupid. She speaks for millions of Germans, only a handful of whom survive. And all of whom have a tough time with mirrors.

One Cool Cat

On a lighter note, the famous Oak Room at the Algonquin, usually reserved for literary homages and Cole Porter songs, is playing host to a fresh new face in the contemporary jazz firmament named Curtis Stigers. Mr. Stigers, who hails from Boise, Idaho, is the musical equivalent of Mr. Deeds on his way to town or Mr. Smith on his way to Washington-a lanky, swinging Jimmy Stewart type headed for stardom. Accompanied by a trio of clean-cut, all-American jazzbos-Matthew Fries on piano, Keith Hall on drums and Gregory Ryan on bass-the saxophone-playing singer looks ready to heat up another Saturday-night dance at Dartmouth. But the music these guys play is a joyful, sophisticated mix of jazz, rock and blues that reaches farther in its roots than any easy-to-peg genre and stretches more horizons than any frat house. On a standard like “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” Mr. Stigers finds eight new notes to every bar, and scats gently with a keen sense of time before launching into an even hipper rendition of the Jon Hendricks–Harry (Sweets) Edison classic, “Centerpiece.” Honoring Nashville steel guitarist Steve Earle, he swings into a funky “Home Town Blues,” giving it a Tin Pan Alley spin in a style he calls “Irving Berlin meets Hank Williams.” “Swingin’ Down at Tenth and Main” is a country-and-western tribute to one of his early idols, the driving pianist Gene Harris. He can also handle an indigo-tinged ballad like “My Foolish Heart” with a heartbreaking, understated vibrato, and turn Randy Newman’s “Living Without You” into a surprising anthem for a wounded post-9/11 New York. Although he looks like he was born with a straw in his mouth, he brings a unique and definitive sensibility to everything he sings that often melds two or three styles together simultaneously. Although his movie-star good looks and sweet crooning style may be the stuff bobby-soxers drool over, his horn playing is less impressive. There’s some alarming evidence that he’s been unwisely influenced more by the nasty honking of Acker Bilk and Kenny G. than by the gorgeous obligatos of Stan Getz and Scott Hamilton. His sax is perfunctory, not warm or misty. Still, there’s a lot to admire in a cool cat so lacking in pretense that he can interrupt a particularly passionate drum solo to exclaim, “Good gracious!” Because he’s handsome and hip in the spotlight, staring dreamily into space while clutching his horn and projecting the image of a lonely little boy lost, romantic comparisons to the young Chet Baker are tempting, but flawed. It’s doubtful that Curtis Stigers has ever ingested anything stronger than rhubarb pie.