It’s hard to do anything original or even captivating with a Holocaust-themed movie. Much like the action genre, there comes a point where it starts to feel like the same thing over and over again — i.e. Nazis are bad, bad people — but unlike in an action movie, there are rarely any big-budget special effects to distract from the fact that this has been done before.
Constantin Costa-Gavras’ new foray into the pain-struck world of the Holocaust (he also made Music Box and often visits the theme of one against the world in his films) is Amen. It’s a slow, one-track movie about a German scientist who discovers that his chemical work with toxic cleansing agents is being repurposed as the active ingredient in the gas chambers of every concentration camp from Dachau to Auschwitz. He is so horrified that his priorities instantly shift from doing good work and being there for his family to telling anybody who will listen what is happening in the death factories of Eastern Europe. While this is a story that had not yet been specifically told, Amen still feels like ground already covered, a dramatization of the futility of one man against the world — or at least against the Third Reich.
Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) is something of a rising star at Germany’s Hygiene Institute, creating a water purification system that can turn even the sludgiest of mud into foul-tasting but drinkable water. But the Reich has other uses for Gerstein’s purification prowess and he becomes an unwilling, integral part of the Final Solution’s execution. A faithful Christian — though not a Catholic — Gerstein eventually sets his hopes on Pope Pius XII, the only man he believes has enough power to spur the citizens of Germany and the rest of the world to rise up against the Nazi regime. Gerstein foolishly expects that once told of the atrocities the German has witnessed firsthand, the Pope will act immediately in condemning Hitler.
For a chemical engineer (and an SS man), Gerstein is far from calculating, instead following his heart and believing that the world works as he does. He understands nothing of politics, of why the pope might not want to share the Vatican’s private opposition to Hitler with the faithful. The creepy Aryan doctor (Ulrich Muhe) who repeatedly and subtly forces Gerstein to offer his expertise to the Reich tells him that he should work harder at hiding his emotions; it’s a piece of advice that Gerstein finds impossible to follow. His impassioned efforts to make contact with the Church eventually bring him in contact with Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a priest stationed in Germany whose father, conveniently, is extremely close with the pope. Riccardo is the only person Gerstein meets who is both sure that he is telling the truth and willing to go to bat for him, even at the expense of his own career.
Amen does have some mildly interesting things going on — both Riccardo and Gerstein are beholden to their fathers, yet shake off the chains of respect and propriety through allegiance to the heavenly father over all else. And, like all Holocaust movies, it’s a tale the world ought to know. But there’s no getting rid of the sense that Amen could have lost an hour of running time, or that its conclusion is obvious from the moment the opening credits roll. That’s what’s known as sensory and emotional overload, something with which Gerstein becomes devastatingly familiar.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Madstone Theaters (Briarwood Mall, 462 Briarwood Circle, Ann Arbor) as part of EXTRA: The Premiere Pic Series. Call 734-994-5540.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].