Costa-Gavras has an eye for the message movie. Who knew there could be so many stripes of social injustice and deeply entrenched corruption? Yet, Costa-Gavras has forged a filmmaking career out of exploring just how many avenues of human weakness, political malice, and social dysfunction the human species can get up to, and he often roots his essays more or less in the fertile medium of historic fact.
Now the director of "Missing" (American journalist falls victim to Chile’s American-supported military 1973 coup; his family, portrayed by Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, try desperately to locate him or at least learn of his fate), "Capital" (a latter-day satire of economics), and "Betrayed" (the romantic complications that arise when an FBI agent (Debra Winger), undercover, falls in love with the white supremacist (Tom Berenger) she’s investigating in connection with the murder of a talk show host) turns his lens to the Holocaust and the efforts of a German chemist to slow, thwart, or even seek external intervention to derail his government’s campaign of systematic mass murder.
The chemist, Kurt Gerstein, was a real person, though he’s been considerably fictionalized this film, which is based on a 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth. As "Amen." tells it, Gerstein developed a process by which Zyklon B could be used as a means of eradicating infectious disease, specifically typhus, and thus help keep the German army healthy. When he finds out his innovation is being used to eradicate Jews in gas chambers, he risks his life to alert the Swiss (via a diplomat) and the Vatican (via clerical connections), but to no avail.
The semi-fictionalized Gerstein is both a man of deep faith and a patriot; more than once, as his colleagues in the SS discuss how they intend to make the conquered world their playground, Gerstein expresses a simple, authentic wish to "be a German in Germany." Bit by bit, to save his country’s soul (and his own), he’s forced into an outright betrayal of the criminal regime whose uniform he wears.
Gerstein is played by Ulrich Tukur, a burly man who fits the part physically. His (entirely fictional) opposite is Riccardo (Matthieu Kassovitz), a slight, doe-eyed young cleric whose family are on intimate terms with Pope Pius XII, especially his father. (Pius XII is never named as such in "Amen." He’s simple referred to, and credited as, "The Pope." He’s played by Marcel Iureş.)
Costa-Gavras paints a heavenly visual representation of Rome, which offsets an equally hellish depiction of Nazi occupancy and murder. Cutting back and forth between these extremes of locate, and cutting through the film with sometimes heavy-handed import, are trains -- the same cattle-car trains, puffing thick black smoke, that we see Jews being loaded onto. These trains rumble ominously in a repeated, and repetitious, motif underscored (or rather, over-scored) by intrusive music by Amand Amar, whose music otherwise deftly paints the film’s moods without calling attention to itself, much as cinematographer Patrick Blossier paints the visuals with somber tones and overcast lighting.
"Amen." is a little ham-handed, not least in the use of that period that lends the title such incriminating, ironic weight, but also in the ways in which Gerstein, Riccardo, and The Pope interact, with all of them being caught up in impossible dilemmas.
This Cohen Media release of the 2002 film is beautifully remastered, but while the film leaves an impression, it also leaves the viewer feeling a little manhandled by its too-obvious tropes and twists. More interesting (and less pushy) is the hourlong documentary -- an episode of the British series "Reputations" -- that examines Pope Pius XII and his sometimes puzzling responses to the Nazi atrocities.
The other special feature of note is an audio commentary by Costa-Gavras himself, along with NPR film critic Wade Major.
Blu-ray / DVD Combo