Constantin Costa-Gavras, perhaps cinema’s best-known political filmmaker, has been directing films since the 1960s. Many of them dramatize real-life events, and like Z, State of Siege and Missing, heroic resistance to political violence. After working in Hollywood, his latest film, Amen, is a welcome return to the real world and to politics. In France it has generated a tumult of controversy, provoked by the publicity poster – a hybrid crucifix-cum-swastika, which neatly alludes to the film’s subject – the relationship between the Nazis and the Vatican, and the Church’s silence about the extermination camps.
Amen follows the efforts of an SS officer (based on a real person) and a priest to tell the world the truth. Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) is a devout Christian and the inventor of Zyklon-B gas – to poison insects and vermin, not people. Called up into the SS, he soon learns about the mass extermination programme. When he fails to persuade his Protestant church leaders to tell the German people, he approaches a Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassowitz) with Vatican connections.
Costa-Gavras deftly handles Amen’s central dilemma – how to resist a system that you are part of. The problem is that the audience knows the outcome – the Pope and the Vatican remained silent. As political history, the film lacks dramatic tension. Its repeated motif, the speeding trains of emptied cattle trucks, which at first seems haunting, becomes hollow and even irritating.
Amen does work very well as Gerstein’s story, although whether he survives or not is in the circumstances less important. It’s a measure of Tukur’s fine restrained performance that he convinces us of that.