Monday, May 17, 2010

Burden of truth

Costa-Gavras's films have to be approached as socio-political documents before considering them as aesthetic objects. Amen.* (2002) seems sets out to confound the truism that the truth will make you free. Newly minted SS Officer Kurt Gerstein is a first-hand witness at a dry run for the Final Solution and is determined as a Christian to make it public knowledge, confident that the German people will put a stop to it, as they stopped execution of the mentally disabled. Unable to get an audience with Germans, he stumbles over a connection to the highest powers in the Vatican, who also turn a deaf ear.

As an aesthetic object the film is a perfect demonstration of how filmmakers discard the strength of the material they have acquired and fail to substitute anything as powerful. The material first appeared in Germany in the early 1960's as a play called The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth. It was a long documentary indictment of the Catholic Church and was vehemently denounced by the church, thus enhancing its fame and probably increasing the number of productions it received. (Would-be censors never learn this lesson.)

Though it was long and much of it was disputed, it was theatrical lightning, and was produced across the continent, and the Royal Shakespeare Company production came to New York to great acclaim and fanfare.

Costa-Gavras and his collaborators modified the story so that instead of the straight-on attack on the church, the film bounces between Gerstein's agony and the attempt of a young priest to get the attention of the Pontiff. This is exactly what happened to the play Amadeus by Anthony Shaffer. Where the play focused with laser beam intensity on the hatred and frustration of Salieri against Mozart, Forman's film brought in Mozart's father, Schickaneder, an elaborate physical production (in which Mozart is seen conducting an orchestra in a completely inauthentic manner), all of which diluted the film and made it utterly unclear what it was about except the fact that Tom Hulce can giggle like a fool.

Since the publication of The Deputy, Costa-Gavras claims that information has surfaced that tends to exonerate the Vatican and make its silence understandable if not excusable. I don't have the time or inclination to delve into the charges and counter-charges. All I know is that this is among the mildest and politest of Holocaust films. Admittedly it was a wise decision to play the initial gassing scene off-screen, with its horror reflected in Gerstein's eyes. But the rest of the film feels like earnest young officers and priests stomping around and telling their superiors, "I beg you to listen to me," while the elders blandly wave them away. The point is made quickly, and no new points or insights follow in the second hour.

Costa-Gavras is an exciting filmmaker when he's angry. Clearly, he's aging when the Holocaust doesn't seem to get him worked up anymore.
* The period is part of the title. I don't know why.

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