Dir: Costa-Gavras. France. 2001. 132mins.
Costa-Gavras is no stranger to controversy; in fact, the hard-hitting political expose has become something of his stock-in-trade. But in the 20 years since Missing, the Greek-born director has struggled to find a distinctive voice. Betrayed and Music Box, his two collaborations with screenplay king Joe Eszterhas, were not generally well received, and critical reaction to the Travolta-Hoffman two-hander Mad City was equally tepid, though box-office results were reasonably upbeat. Early reports of his latest widescreen denunciation Amen suggested a return to the form and the passion of Missing - but his new work is not in the same league. Once the smokescreen of controversy evaporates, the film may well will probably run out of steam at the box office.
In its polemical subject matter, Amen is classic Costa-Gavras. Set in Germany and Italy during the Second World War, the film is based on Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative, which dramatises the Vatican's failure to speak out against Hitler's Final Solution. The poster, based on a motif in which a cross merges with a swastika, was designed by former Benetton image man Oliviero Toscani for maximum shock value - and the tactic certainly created a stir at the Berlin Film Festival, where Amen is in competition.
The film, though, is less striking than the hubbub that surrounds it. While there is little to fault in the performances of Ulrich Tukur and Mathieu Kassovitz, this is an extremely conventional and rather heavy-handed treatment of a complex subject. Although it gains in stature towards the end, when the personal tragedies of the two main characters begin to rise above the force-fed message, many audiences will feel too bullied into indignation. With its self-created publicity machine, Amen will have no problem attracting international distributors - although the US market will not be an easy one in which to launch a film that will alienate the Catholic lobby at the same time that it courts the Jewish one. Another problem in English-speaking territories is the dialogue: the mixed European cast speaks English with a variety of hokey accents, some fairly impenetrable; and there are moments when the script sounds translated.
The plot centres on Kurt Gerstein (Tukur), a real-life doctor and engineer whose strong religious principles and anti-Nazi activism landed him in jail before the war. In 1941, though, Gerstein volunteered for the Waffen SS. Exploring the reasons for this about-face might have made Gerstein a more complex character. But Costa-Gavras is more interested in the calvary of conscience that begins when Gerstein is detailed to supervise the production of Zyklon B gas, and its distribution to the first Nazi death camps. Horrified by what he sees, Gerstein decides to let church authorities in on the secret. However, neither his fellow Protestants nor the Catholic nuncio in Berlin seem particularly troubled by the information. The only one to be stricken by Gerstein's account is the nuncio's young secretary, Riccardo, played with nicely modulated intensity by Mathieu Kassovitz. He determines to travel to Rome - where his father is a high-ranking Vatican official - to inform Pope Pius XII of the unfolding tragedy.
Gerstein, meanwhile, is jousting with his nemesis, a sardonic and utterly amoral Nazi known as "the doctor" (Ulrich Muhe), who takes a sadistic delight in putting his colleague's principles to the test. Back in Rome, Riccardo's impassioned appeal breaks on the rocks of Vatican immobility and caution - as we knew it would. As German soldiers begin rounding up Jews within spitting distance of the dome of St Peters, Riccardo and Gerstein are already trudging along the road to martyrdom.
Costa-Gavras never was the most experimental of directors. The dated look of this film is driven home by some cliched sets and character parts, especially in the Roman scenes. The Vatican looks like a Catholic version of Disneyland, and a scene involving a gesticulating photographer is just plain embarrassing; equally cringe-worthy are the four occasions when characters break into song. But the film's approach to the problem of representing the Holocaust is more restrained. Cattle-trucks cross the landscape, their doors open onto empty space, their cargos offloaded. And when Gerstein witnesses the killings at first hand, it is in the company of a group of Nazi officers who peer through a peephole with the relish of the voyeur; what they see beyond the door is never shown. It is one of the rare moments when Costa-Gavras seems to believe in the value of understatement.
Prod co: Renn Productions
Co-prod: TF1 Films, Katharina, Pathe Int'l
Int'l sales: Pathe Distribution
Prod: Claude Berri
Exec Prod: Michele Ray
Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Prod des: Ari Hantke
Ed: Yannick Kergoat
Music: Armand Amar
Main cast: Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Muhe, Michel Duchaussoy, Marcel Iures, Ion Caramitru