“Amen” by Costa-Gravas

Image: Vasco Prado


Commentary on the film by the Greek filmmaker

Amen, from 2002, by the Greek filmmaker Costa-Gravas (born in 1933), is a masterpiece of European cinema with political concerns. The film tackles important issues of the historiographical legacy of Nazi-fascism: the position of the Church in the face of the barbarism that was committed against Jews, gypsies (and many more people), along with an imaginary inventory of opponents of the regime then in force in Germany. Costa-Gravas mixes real facts and fictional elements. It is a historical novel. Unlike most historical novels, Amen it contains plot, and it contains history as well.

This is the story of Kurt Gerstein (1905-1945), a German SS officer, specialist in fighting typhus and in methods for water purification. He was horrified by the concentration camps he visited in Poland. He despaired when he discovered that his anti-typhus formula (Zyklon-B) was being used in a program to systematically exterminate enemies of the regime. Although active in the second echelon of Nazism, he denounced the crimes he witnessed. He contacted a Swiss ambassador and tried at all costs to communicate with Pope Pius XII. Along Amen Costa-Gravas denounces the insensitivity of the Church, immobilized by a rhetoric of enervating neutrality. Costa-Gravas also shows us that not every German was in agreement with all the points of the Nazi agenda.

In the background of this film there is the theme of collective guilt. It deals with a threatening presence of the past, confronting the possibility (or impossibility) of consciousness apprehending and dominating what has already occurred. The hope of forgiveness and reconciliation is problematized. It is the case of a guilt that would affect an entire generation, especially those who were born and who lived their early childhood between 1914-1933. With the end of the Third Reich, the burden of guilt for the barbarities of war marked the German existential experience. The search for solidarity, denying a brutal past, connected the overcoming of a trauma with an ethics of responsibility. At the limit, those who did not offer any form of opposition to the regime in force would be blamed. The German generation of the 1960s somehow repudiated this past.

Costa-Gravas extended this discussion to religious institutionalism. He drew attention to some Protestant reaction in Germany, and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) is very emblematic, even if not mentioned in the film. As one reads in the fascinating biography written by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer was a pastor, martyr, prophet and spy. He was an isolated character in a context of support, consent and coercion, where there were voluntary executioners everywhere, including among intellectuals.

In Costa-Gravas' narrative, the central character is an innocent. This is Gerstein, played by Ulrich Tukur, German, who is also a musician. Gerstein does not understand the reality in which he lives. He believes that if the Germans were informed of what was happening in the concentration camps, they would revolt, fighting against Nazism. Costa-gravas leverages the theme of ambiguity, one of the interpretive keys of the film. That is, Gerstein was a member of the SS, which cast him as a traitor, one of the arguments put forward by Church representatives to deny him any credit. Gerstein's father, who believed in Nazism as a condition for Germany's recovery, regarded his son as a sentimental fool.

The Church (in the context of the various interpretations that Costa-Gravas suggests) resisted condemning Nazism on the grounds that Jews were not baptized. It contradicted the dogma of the universality of the human person, and the values ​​intrinsic to this condition. The foundation of the political motivation that brought Rome closer to Christianity is fulminated, a project of universal expansion, Urbi and orbi, from the city to the world. The problem is rooted in the Edict of Milan, from 313 d. C., downloaded by Emperor Constantine. The definitive solution comes with the Treaty of Saint John Lateran, signed by Mussolini and by Pietro Gasparri, Secretary of State of the Holy See.

Costa-Gravas inserts in the film a young Jesuit, Ricardo Fontana (played by Frenchman Mathieu Kassovitz), son of an influential count in the Vatican. Fontana rebels against the indifference of the Church, subjecting himself to a radical sacrifice. He accompanied the Italian Jews driven to Auschwitz, sharing, suffering, fate and despair. Fontana argued with the ecclesiastical authorities, arguing for the need for a rigorous intervention by Pope Pius XII, as a condition for the affirmation of Christian doctrine. While denouncing the Holocaust, the cardinals discuss religious holidays, aspects of Christian moral doctrine and lament that the Nazis were not passing on fees levied on German Christians that should have been forwarded to the Vatican.

Fontana and Gerstein expected the Pope to be severe in his Christmas homily. Nothing happens. A warm speech. Meanwhile, Nazis happily celebrate the Christian feast by singing Silent Night. It is perceived that the Vatican's policy reveals some tolerance (too much, in fact) towards the Nazi fury, in the expectation that the German Army would defeat Stalin (and communism), which they saw as a much greater evil. A far from naive question was posed: what to save, the Vatican or Christendom? The Pope ambiguously demanded explanations from the German ambassador to the Vatican while he was moderate. On the other hand, already in 1938, Hitler had met with Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, leader of the Catholic Church in Austria, who would have guaranteed him support and support.

Still under a German historical perspective, Costa-Gravas takes up the theme of the self-critical memory of Auschwitz. There is a contrast between the undeniable German cultural and civilizing splendor, rarely equaled in any other cultural and scientific experience, compared with the reminiscences of the Nazi horror. This subject was explored by Jürgen Habermas, who reminds us that every time the German civilizing effort is recognized there is a finger in the air, in the form of the aforementioned self-critical memory.

The German thinker questioned whether there is political, legal and cultural heritage in relation to the generation of defendants, whose descendants would be historically responsible for their actions. Germany's political self-understanding would also be rooted in a self-critical reflection on the barbarism of Auschwitz. There is a ruptured element of national identity which predicates disquieting political responsibility. In the words of Habermas, this connection stems from the fact that a rupture in civilization was practised, supported or tolerated. A subject to be permanently thought about.

Costa-Gravas tensions these terms of the German legacy with the action of the Church, in the representative performances of Gerstein and Fontana. The provocation of the original poster, mixing a cross and a swastika, is an iconographic affront that announces a film at the same time serious and irreverent, critical and accommodating, well-behaved and explosive. It is an ambiguous film, just as the characters and situations it presents and discusses are ambiguous.

* Arnaldo Sampaio de Moraes Godoy is a lecturer in General Theory of the State at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP).


Amen (Amen)

France, Germany, Romania, England, 2002, 132 minutes

Directed by: Costa-Gravas

Screenplay: Costa-Gravas and Jean-Claude Grumberg

Cast: Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Mühe

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