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Issue Date:  May 27, 2005

Films confront history

German 'Ninth Day' examines faith during the Nazi regime; 'Cinderella Man' tracks career of 1930s boxer


The Ninth Day is the best film so far this year. No reader of NCR should miss it, even if it is in German. Emotionally demanding, it tells the story of Abbé Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes), a priest from Luxembourg imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis for helping the French Resistance. Drawing heavily on an episode from a Dachau diary kept by Fr. Jean Bernard that deserves translation, it tells how the Nazis give Kremer a nine-day furlough, after which he must return to prison unless he can get his bishop to give up his opposition to the occupation.

Director Volker Schlöndorff, internationally known for “Young Torless” and “The Tin Drum,” avoids pious clichés in presenting the priest’s dilemma. His face ravaged, his body exhausted, Kremer knows that failure to collaborate will endanger both his family and fellow priests in Dachau. Mr. Matthes is convincing in portraying a man whose faith is deeply challenged. Desperate to find a way out of his dilemma, Kremer listens intently to Gebhardt (August Diehl), the suavely confident Nazi officer who seems almost convincing as he uses Judas to present the case for betrayal. The scenes between the two men are absorbing because they are evenly matched; it seems appropriate when we learn later that Gebhardt was a seminarian close to ordination when he joined the SS.

Wisely, Mr. Schlöndorff does not try to use the film to resolve the complex issue of church complicity with Nazism. U.S. audiences will be surprised to learn that there were so many priests in Dachau. Mersch, the bishop’s vicar (Götz Burger), advocates accommodation with the Nazis, and Gebhardt stresses Pope Pius XII’s apparent German sympathies, but we are reminded of the situation in Holland where reprisals followed Vatican criticism of the Third Reich.

The film begins at Dachau, in darkness so complete one wonders if it is being shot in black and white. It is structured in terms of the nine days of the furlough. First, Kremer learns that his mother is dead and that his sister Marie (Bibiana Beglau) is pregnant. The bishop is not ready to see him, but he rejects his brother’s offer to help him escape to France. He is wracked by memories of his thirst in Dachau, where he desperately sucked a few drops from a rusty pipe. Mr. Schlöndorff makes minimal use of background music, but as Kremer wanders round the city, we hear the cathedral bells the bishop has arranged to have rung at the same time each day to protest the German occupation.

In a letter to his dead mother, Kremer confesses that the water he kept from a fellow prisoner helped lead to suicide. He collapses during a confrontation with Gebhardt, who promises that if he swears allegiance to the Nazis in writing, he and his fellow priests in Dachau will go free. Finally, he has an audience with the bishop, but the latter offers little comfort when Kremer questions the pope’s silence regarding the Nazi genocide.

In a marvelous directorial stroke -- which Mr. Schlöndorff confessed was partly the result of a change in weather -- Kremer and Marie find emotional release in a brief snowball fight. Afterward the priest goes to SS headquarters with a sealed letter, which he has left blank.

Mr. Schlöndorff attended a Jesuit high school in Brittany, where students were shown Carl Dreyer’s famous 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The Jesuits, he told me, “were very interested in everything, not just theology. Through them I learned to take my desire to be a filmmaker seriously.” He would probably be horrified, however, to be called a “religious” filmmaker. Paradoxically, through an absence of egoism, faithful attention to the script of Eberhard Görner and Andreas Pflüger and the intonation of every line, every gesture and every camera angle, Mr. Schlöndorff has made a genuine film about faith -- without contrived miracles or inhuman religiosity.

Many will not want another boxing movie, but Cinderella Man deserves to be a popular success. Director Ron Howard tells the story of Jimmy Braddock (Russell Crowe), a promising Irish-American fighter from North Bergen, N.J., who broke his hand and had his license removed but came back to defeat Max Baer and win the world’s heavyweight championship in June 1935. If the boxing scenes are strong, so are the images of the Depression, with men living in makeshift tents in Central Park and Braddock glad to get irregular work on the docks.

Cynics may scoff at Braddock’s burning desire to keep his family together, but Mr. Crowe makes his stubbornness and decency credible and attractive. Renée Zellweger deserves equal praise as a loving wife who holds the family (three small children) together under desperate conditions. Fortunately, the script allows her to be more than a dutiful mother: She urges her husband to refuse the fight with Baer when she learns two of the latter’s opponents were killed in the ring and responds to Baer’s condescension by throwing a glass of water in his face. Paul Giamatti adds further strands of humor and realism in a fine performance as Braddock’s loyal trainer, and the director provides a sense of balance by including the bleak, self-satisfied faces of the older men who control boxing.

“Cinderella Man” is a traditional comeback story, but Mr. Crowe makes old-fashioned male virtues credible and entertaining. The only time Braddock overrules his wife is when he insists on reuniting his family after she has left the children in Brooklyn for their safety. He had promised his son, Braddock explains, never to send him away.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2005

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