9 out of 10
A Damning Indictment
Unlike "Schindler's List" and other movies of the same genre, "Amen" rips away many of the comforting lies that surround the Holocaust. In 1945, the world, led by the victorious powers, have been happy to villify the Nazis, drawing attention away from their own hypocrisy. Hatred of the Jews was not just a phenomenon of Central Europe, indeed Hungary only sent their Jews to slaughter at the end of the war when the Germans threatened to abandon their country to the advancing Soviet army if they would not comply. In the Interwar years, suspicion and loathing of minority groups was widespread amongst the industrialized powers, where it was popular for those who had suffered the obliteration and poverty of the Great Depression to find an easily identifiable scapegoat for their own dilemmas. It was just that only in Germany did it gain a specific political representation. We all live cozily in the idea that "following orders was no defence" but what was the alternative to tagging along with the band? As Goering is said to have pointed out at the time of War Crimes trials, there were only "yes-men" there because all the "no-men" were long since 6 foot under. Amen is the true story of an SS Officer who knew of the Holocaust and tried to stop it in any way that he could without losing his life.
It is 1936. It is peace. Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a Christian, has joined the SS to help his poor crippled country.He has no real belief in the concept of the Aryan race, but sees that his work at the Hygiene Institute is having real and positive results, stamping out Typhus that had blighted Germany in the the Depression and he is admired by his Church. The death of his mentally retarded niece, however, produces his first doubt in the system in which he works. As a doctor, he realises that an "epidemic" that is killing off those with Downs Syndrome and those who are old is ludicrously unlikely and that the Nazi leadership is merely killing them off. Through his Protestant Church group, he manages to gain the support of Bishop Von Gallen (Bernd Fischerauer). After preaching a stoic sermon in his cathedral, pointing out that "one day we will all be 'unproductive'" and asking whether soldiers returning with injuries from defending the Fatherland should be likewise regarded as "unproductive" and be liquidated, Von Gallen creates a public outcry and storms into the Minister's office, forcing the extermination of those who are mentally retarded to be shelved.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Dr Gerstein finds himself truly helping to save lives as he tours the Wehrmacht and SS units, explaining how the newly developed "Zyklon B" added to water makes it safe and drinkable, albeit foul-tasting, ensuring the German soldiers in the field do not suffer food poisoning. As he does so, he quickly comes to the attention of senior SS officers who bring him in on a new project. He has been increasingly concerned that the troops could be overdosing themselves due to the vast quantities of "Zyklon B" being shipped to Poland. Arriving at Auschwitz amongst a small group of SS elite officers he asked to look through a spyhole where he sees first-hand that it is being used to exterminate innocent people, Jews. As one of only a handful of trusted SS officers, he is privileged to the hard figures - 10,000 are being killed a day.
Returning to his hometown, he believes his church group will help him a second time by putting a stop to it, but few believe him, wishing instead to accept the propaganda that the Jews have all been deported to the USA. The Superintendent at his church who believes him suggests instead that he should resign, so as not to be a participant, but Gerstein refuses, believing that he must not just run away, but must stay in the SS as the only way to stop their actions and become a "witness to God".
Under the crushing weight of his conscience due to his part in the genocide, he does what he can to slow it. He creates a complex and laughably disfunctional system for the distribution of the lethal agent to waste the camp soldiers time. Always travelling to camps with a shipment of Zyklon B, upon his arrival he advises that it is "leaking" or is "dangerously contaminated" having it sent back. So bad is this disruption, the camp commanders begin to complain bitterly that they are seriously falling behind their schedules for extermination of the Jews and other minority groups.
With growing confidential data, Gerstein becomes increasingly desperate to find someone with the clout to stop the killings. By accident, he meets the Ambassador to Sweden, one of the few neutral countries throughout the war. Despite 10,000 dying a day, the ambassador reports back that his country is has been involved in a long negotiation with the USA to take just a meagre 200 Jewish orphaned children. Gerstein, therefore tries to contact the Americans and British through Sweden with the paperwork that details exactly where the camps are and the railway lines used to carry these people to their doom, but neither will agree to drop so much as a single bomb to disrupt the growing industry of death. He contacts the local Catholic Cardinal who has him thrown out, so as to be able to remain in self-inforced ignorance of the facts and be able to claim he has seen no proof. Through this, however, he meets a young priest, Riccardo Fontana (Matthieu Kassovitz) who takes up his cause.
Believing that "only the Pope's condemnation can stop it", Fontana travels to the Vatican where he is informed that Pope Pius XII (Marcel Iures) has an admiration of Hitler for having stopped Godless Communism overrunning Germany and Central Europe and the Pope will not act without an eye-witness. Fontana even tries to speak to the American Ambassador, but he refuses to listen to anything from "an enemy officer". Regardless of personal risk of being shot as a traitor, Gerstein, therefore, tries to travel to the Vatican, but arrives to discover Rome has just been overrun by the Germans. Despite Jews being dragged away to concentration camps from streets directly adjoining the Vatican, the Pope continues to maintain that the Holocaust is not happening. Furthermore, he refuses Gerstein an audience on the grounds that he must not have contact with a member of the army whose troops have ringed the Vatican.
Warned clearly by a friend in the SS that he is in danger of being shot as a traitor, Gerstein travels to the advancing French army to surrender. He provides them with wads of documents and begs them to help stop the extermination of the Jews. After finishing scheduling every conceivable detail of the Holocaust, one might have thought that they would take action, but instead they hide the papers, arrest him as a war criminal and he is suddenly found mysteriously hanging in his cell.
Directed by Greek Costa-Gravas, Amen pulls a powerful punch. Thoughout, trains with endless boxcars taking Jews to their doom interspaces the story and toward its end, an even more chilling image of trains with empty boxcars return as the industry has done its job...but what more could Gerstein have done? It is damning story of intrigue, sloth, obstruction and willful neglect, not only by the Germans, but by the Church and Allied powers alike...and one that has to be told to their deserved embarrassment.
Film Critic: Robert L Thompsett