"Amen.," Costa-Gavras' highest-profile film in years, is steeped in the tradition of the director's landmark film "Z" and his subsequent political thrillers, which combine suspense with jolting exposé. In this instance Costa-Gavras is covering familiar territory yet is able to evoke the horror of widespread complacency to human suffering of genocidal proportions.
In drawing upon Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play "The Deputy" as his starting point, Costa-Gavras and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Grumberg, focus on two men, one based on an actual person, the other a fictional composite. The men desperately try to spread the word of the horrors occurring in Nazi concentration camps, in particular the extermination camps in Poland. They strive mightily to get through to Pope Pius XII, who they believe will speak out against the Nazi atrocities once they get an audience with him and lay out their evidence.
Despite all that has been written and discussed since 1963 about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holocaust, Costa-Gavras generates fresh impact because he involves us in the complex character of Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), whose thoughts and actions are echoed by Father Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), an Italian Jesuit.
When we meet Gerstein, a respected scientist and doctor, he is about to discover that the Zyklon B pellets he has developed as a lieutenant in the SS -- to disinfect the drinking water of the German soldiers and thus halt the spread of typhus -- are being used to gas Jews at Treblinka in Poland. A devout Protestant with a history of anti-fascist protest, Gerstein decides to inform the world of the genocide of the Jews. He secretly contacts various political and religious dignitaries, including a Swedish diplomat, but sets his hopes on the pope. He is, however, rebuffed by Vatican representatives except for Fontana, an aristocrat with family ties to the pope.
"Amen." has such immediacy and briskness that we are caught up in the increasingly risky actions of Gerstein and Fontana, both of whom possess the strength of character to put the welfare of others first, regardless of personal consequences. They are men of faith but also naiveté.
As the film unfolds, it becomes an indictment of a vast international indifference to the plight of Europe's Jews, yet, as devout men, the protagonists have no doubt that the pontiff will speak out once they get word to him.
Filmed largely in Romania amid striking and varied locales, "Amen." is a handsome period production of fluidity and subtlety, intimate and large-scale. Costa-Gavras shot the film in English with an international cast and crew; there is a vagueness in timelines and locales that tends to occur when many key players on a film, on either side of the camera, are working in what is for them a second language. This is not a major drawback here, fortunately, and it is offset by Tukur's and Kassovitz's absorbing portrayals.
Tukur, a stage actor from the former East Germany who strongly resembles the actual Gerstein, is the epitome of bland Teutonic good looks, and gradually he fills out the archetype with a portrait of a man of depth, individuality and courage.
Kassovitz, the esteemed young French actor-director, similarly shows us a Fontana capable of calm yet passionate self-sacrifice.
Ulrich Mühe is a cynical SS doctor, suggestive not just of the infamous Mengele but of all those Nazis who made their way to South America, sometimes, as the film hints, with help from inside the Vatican.
Costa-Gavras had wanted to make "Amen." for nearly four decades, and it was worth the wait.
MPAA rating: unrated
Times guidelines: complex adult themes
Ulrich Tukur ... Kurt Gerstein
Mathieu Kassovitz ... Father Riccardo Fontana
Ulrich Mühe ... The Doctor
Michel Duchaussoy ... The Cardinal
Fontana Ion Caramitru ... The Count
A Kino International release of a Katharina/Renn Productions co-production with TF1 Films Production in association with KC Medien and with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Costa-Gavras. Executive producer Michèle Ray. Producer Claude Berri. Screenplay by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg. Cinematographer Patrick Blossier. Editor Yannick Kergoat. Music Armand Amar. Costumes Édith Vespérini. Production designer Ari Hantke. Art director Maria Miu. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
At selected theaters.