Dir. VolkerSchloendorff. Ger-Lux. 2004. 97mins.
Despiteinitial appearances and a long prologue set inside Dachau concentration camp,Volker Schloendorff's The Ninth Day is no Holocaust film, but a neartheological dissertation on Catholicism and how it held up under the Nazi rule.
The victims thistime are not Jews but the Catholic priests sent to concentration camps forresisting the Nazi regime, notwithstanding all the Vatican's manipulativeattempts to find a modus vivendi with the Wehrmacht.
The script,based on the personal account of one such priest, Father Jean Bernard, writtenimmediately after the war, did the rounds for some years before it landed onthe trusty lap of Volker Schloendorff, who claims he has shot it without anyalterations.
The result is an extremely well-acted, earnest, sincere,forceful and well-intentioned - if one-sided drama - that wears its heart onits sleeve, while the subject may deter the younger demographic, it is sure tobe appreciated by adult audiences and film festivals.
The additionalbonus of taking Catholic ethics to task, as done recently by the likes of TheMagdalene Sisters, along with Schloendorff's reputation, should help spreadthe word and generate curiosity.
Less virulent inits criticism of the Vatican than Costa Gavras' Amen, but also lessdeclamatory and more personal, Schloendorff's main concern here is to show howtrue faith stands up in times of strife and tragedy.
Henri Kremer(Ulrich Matthes), a Luxembourg abbot, finds himself in Dachau after preachingagainst the Nazis and collaborating with the French Resistance, sharing thefate of thousands of Catholic officers who were deported for similar reasons.
One day, forwhat seems no apparent reason, he is pulled out of his barracks and told he isbeing sent home to Luxembourg. Once there, he finds out that his liberty isconditional: he has nine days to convince the Bishop of Luxembourg, who has cuthimself off from any active duties since the country was occupied by theGermans, to work hand in hand with the Nazi regime. If he succeeds, he stays.If he fails, back he goes to the living hell he had just left.
Physicallybroken but spiritually undaunted, Kremer not only has to measure himselfagainst the Mephistopheles-like Gebhardt (August Diehl), the Gestapo officerwho comes up with all the necessary arguments that should make a collaboratorout of him, but also with his own sense of duty, his conscience, and hispersonal commitments. And no one, including the Church dignitaries he contacts,can or will help him reach a decision. Meanwhile the Vatican, whose shiftyindecisiveness and dubious conduct are often mentioned, never really puts itsarguments one way or another.
The choiceKremer faces is put in atrocious but perfectly clear terms. He can accept theNazi proposal and by doing so, save not only his own life and that of hisfamily, who are in danger of being exterminated as part of his punishment, butalso those of the fellow priests he left behind in Dachau. If, however he daresto turn Gebhardt down or fails to satisfy his demands, then he condemns all ofthese people to a fate worse than death.
The risk withthis kind of film is that it will simplify issues to the point where good is soobviously right and evil so patently wrong that one wonders how so very fewcould tell the difference at the time.
Schloendorff'spicture doesn't quite avoid this pitfall. Introductory images suggest a classicHolocaust movie, as oppressive and horrific as anything put on screen byfictional cinema. Then Kremer meets Gebhardt, at which point the scriptswitches to an intellectual duel between the two over the role of the CatholicChurch within the Nazi regime.
But to maintainsuch a confrontation, both sides need to employ equally eloquent arguments intheir favour, something that doesn't really happen. For as demonicallydelivered as they are in August Diehl's glacially sharp performance, Gebhardt'slines sound too much like cynical repartees the speaker himself doesn't believein, instead of being the product of cold, irrefutable logic.
This leaves fearas the only effective weapon left to combat Kremer's faith, draining the clashof its intellectual value. Gebhardt brings up several arguments that involveclassic heresies. One is that Judas was the most faithful and dedicated of allapostles, the only one willing to be damned for eternity in order to kickstartthe chain of events that led Christ to Calvary. In the same way, Gebhardtmaintains, the Church can betray its own scruples and principles to savehumanity.
However, thereal dilemma, and most difficult dimension to render visually on screen isKremer's inner conflict. On the one side is his fear of returning to camp, thelove he has for his family and the compassion for all his deported colleagues;on the other is his refusal of his conscience to conceive any conditions underwhich he can accept the Nazi ideology.
To convey this,Schloendorff resorts to the spectacular intensity of Ulrich Matthes, whosegaunt, martyr face and haunted eyes seem to have witnessed all the horrors inthe world, and to a series of conscience-wrecking flashbacks from Dachau,between which he even inserts an episode from Primo Levi.
But, to returnto a long-standing argument, recreating the concentration camps on screen is alaudably well-intentioned endeavour that will never be anything more than apale, ineffectual reproduction of the real thing.
Otherwise, thereis little to complain about.
Whilehe may look too young, Diehl, as Gebhardt, uses small body movements to generate a kind of terror that hypnotizeshis victims into submission. Yet as fearsome as he is, he still manages to hintthat somewhere below the surface there are scars left by his experiences on the EasternFront and from the concentration camps that he doesn't quite know how to copewith.
Asfor Matthes, it's difficult to imagine a better match for the emaciatedphysical condition of Kremer, who can hardly stand on his feet or climb steps.Yet there is the fiery, burning passion of faith in Matthes' tortured eyes thatexpressing more than any words about the character he plays.
Tomas Erhart'simpressive camera work runs the entire palette of grey, never allowing one rayof sunlight to break through the heavy clouds of the period, while AlfredSchnittke's music is eminently suitable for the circumstances. Other technicalcredits are of a high professional standard.
Prod cos: Provobis Film, Bayerische Rundfunk, Video Press, Arte
Int'l sales: Telepool
Exec prod: Wolfgang Plehn
Prod: Juergen Haase
Scr: EberhardGoerner, Andreas Pflueger, from Father JeanBernard's Pfarrerblock Z4587
Cine: Tomas Erhart
Ed: Peter R Adam
Prod des: Ari Hantke
Main cast: UlrichMatthes, August Diehl, Germain Wagner, Bibiana Beglau, Jean Paul Raths, IvanJirik, Karel Hromadka, Hilmar Thate, Gotz Burger, Miroslave Sichman