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At the Movies

In a maelstrom


Costa-Gavras, a French filmmaker who made his reputation by infusing political content with high excitement (“Z,” “State of Siege”), uses his new movie, Amen, to explore the failure of Pope Pius XII to protest Hitler’s extermination of the Jews during World War II. An adaptation of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” which caused an international uproar when it appeared in 1963, “Amen” raises lots of still important questions, but somewhat softens the pope’s failure by seeing it as part of a wider indifference to the Holocaust by those who knew what was going on. The American ambassador, for example, is shown as considering any effort to rescue the Jews a distraction from the prosecution of the war. What emerges is a film worth seeing, yet with surprisingly little dramatic bite.

The central character of “Amen” is not Pius XII, who is only a dim background figure in the scenes in which he appears, but Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), an expert on the sterilization of water. A historical person, Gerstein was recruited by a sinister SS official, the Doctor (Ulrich Mühe) to use his chemical expertise in carrying out “the final solution.”

The movie’s most powerful moment shows the reaction on Gerstein’s face after he is brought to a concentration camp and looks through a peephole at the Jews being gassed inside.

Gerstein is presented as a serious Protestant able to do nothing but cooperate with the program while hoping to slow down the pace of the killing and try to inform the outside world of what is going on. When he approaches his pastor, he is advised to be quiet; when he tries to get the Catholic bishop to take his information to the Vatican, he is rudely dismissed; someone wearing an SS uniform has little credibility. Only one person takes him seriously, a composite figure, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Jesuit priest assigned to the papal nuncio in Berlin.

Although the Fontana’s father works in the Vatican, Fontana is unable to crack the self-protective atmosphere shared by the pope’s advisers who remind the priest that Hitler, for all his faults, is a bulwark against communism. He brings Gerstein to Rome, hoping that the latter’s extensive evidence on the death camps will lead to action, but without success. Finally, Fontana’s father assures him that Pius XII will include a condemnation of the mass killings in his upcoming Christmas message, but this only leads to further disillusionment as he and Gerstein listen anxiously to their radio and hear the pope solemnly proclaim a series of empty platitudes.

Despite the urgency of its subject, the dialogue of “Amen” has little emotional power; its most suggestive images are the recurring shots of freight trains rolling through the German countryside. Making “Amen” as an English-language film may have been a shrewd commercial decision, but since most of the actors are not at home with the language, their words lack clarity and immediacy. More seriously, the agonizing contradictions in Gerstein’s position are never dramatized, and Fontana’s gestures, even when he pins a yellow star on his habit at the end, seem to convey weakness rather than heroism. Although Costa-Gavras should be commended for avoiding a simplistic broadside against the pope, showing that the Vatican was also sheltering Jews inside its walls, the necessary scene in the conflict he is dramatizing is missing -- the one in which Pius XII wrestles with his moral responsibilities.

Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring, packs a stronger emotional charge, perhaps because it concentrates on individuals caught in the Nazi maelstrom. The movie is based on the memoir of the pianist Wladyslav Szpilman, whose tightly knit, upper-middle class Jewish family was sent to their deaths in 1942, while he himself survived, half-mad with hunger and solitude, in an abandoned Warsaw apartment. “The Pianist” is a demanding movie, and the second half could usefully have been cut by 20 minutes, but it conveys the horrors of Nazi power exercised against helpless Jews more powerfully than “Schindler’s List.”

Polanski, who himself escaped the Kraków ghetto as a child during World War II, presents a succession of relentlessly precise images of the day-by-day process in the destruction of Jewish life in Warsaw. The picture opens in 1939 as German artillery shells hit the local radio station, forcing Wladyslav, who is playing Chopin with total absorption, off the air. Shocked by the increasing violence around them as the walls of the ghetto are erected, the Szpilmans retain their dignity at each stage, the father dividing an overpriced caramel evenly between them as they are about to be taken to a concentration camp. At the last moment, a Jewish policeman working for the SS throws the pianist to the ground, and tells him to disappear.

Adrien Brody, who as Wladyslav conveys the maximum of emotion with a minimum of dialogue, does not even have time to register surprise; he scurries away like a hunted animal through the abandoned ghetto streets.

The director avoids both sensationalism and sentimentality; some will fault the movie for not making the pianist heroic or revealing his inner thoughts. We understand his fear and hunger easily enough, for the rest Brody has to rely on his deep, sad eyes, and exhaustion on his handsome, aristocratic face. The director’s own experience guides the choice of details that convey the shock, resignation, and gradual rebellion within the ghetto, and he follows Szpilman’s account of how members of the Resistance took him from one hiding place to another, with one of his would-be rescuers turning out to be a simple opportunist.

The sadism of Nazi guards, though inevitably repetitive, should remind audiences of how intoxicating is the existence of unchallenged physical power. The real-life Wladyslaw Szpilman lived to be 88. In the film, we are immensely relieved by his survival, but Polanski goes out of his way to show that it was simply an ironic fluke. Szpilman’s extreme loneliness leaves him almost a cipher; when, just before the Germans are forced to abandon Warsaw, he gets a chance to play on a real piano, it is a desperate assertion of long-repressed inner being. At the end, after liberation, Szpilman is back at the radio station playing the same Chopin nocturne we heard at the beginning. Polanski deliberately does not give him any comment, but we share a sense of muter emotional triumph despite his tragic losses.

Chaos is a fast-paced French comedy that maintains suspense in equal measure, and is more entertaining than “Thelma and Louise” in its criticism of male superiority. Writer-director Coline Serreau opens with a bourgeois couple hurrying to dinner when their car is stopped by a young hooker who is frantically running away from pursuing thugs. Husband Paul (Vincent Lindon) locks the car doors, leaving the woman to be viciously beaten by her pursuers. Before he drives off, however, he is careful to wipe the blood off the windshield of his Peugeot.

Paul’s wife Hélène (Catherine Frot) seeks out the victim, Malika (Rachida Brakni), in the intensive care ward of a nearby hospital. Aghast at finding her in a coma, Hélène watches patiently over the young woman, abandoning her husband and her equally narcissistic teenage son. At one point in Malika’s slow process of recovery, her guardian slams a board over the head of one of the thugs who comes to the hospital to threaten their victim.

The story veers to melodrama when Malika tells a lurid story of how her father sold her to an older Algerian man, and her attempt to escape left her the victim of pimps. Unfortunately, its plea for freedom for Muslim women has no time for the depiction of the typical life of North African men in France, and Malika’s liberation is achieved by the use of her “flame-thrower” gaze to entrap an elderly Swiss millionaire. Brakni won a César, France’s equivalent of an Oscar, for her captivating performance as Malika, but there is no denying that Malika’s “feminist” revenge is achieved by sex.

“Chaos” nevertheless succeeds because it establishes the nature of the Paul-Hélène marriage from the start, with both Lindon and Frot showing a genuine talent for comedy. Paul’s inability to cope with the house in Hélène’s absence is hilarious, and her elaborate indifference to his fury only adds to the fun.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer, can be contacted through e-mail at Scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003