Der Stellvertreter aka Amen (2002) The Disillusioning Reaction of the Catholic Church to the Holocaust

In the beginning of Costa Gavras´ Der Stellvertreter aka Amen we see how a group of children with special needs is transported to an extermination camp and gassed. When this is being found out people are shocked and taken aback and, together with the Catholic Church, they fight these practices that are ultimately stopped.

This noble reaction of the Church is not repeated however when they are asked for assistance in stopping the extermination of Jews. Nor do the alerted Allies help. Der Stellvertreter explores the shameful failure of the Catholic church and the rest of the world.

The SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), head of the Institute of Hygiene, is a chemist and the developer of the lethal gas Zyklone-B. He thinks that this deadly gas is used to free the concentration camps from vermin and must find out that it is actually used for exterminating Jews. He witnesses this with his own eyes and his outrage and revulsion are so intense that he decides to alarm the Catholic Church. Only one young priest, whose family is of great influence in the Vatican, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), feels the urge to support Gerstein, travels to the Vatican and informs the Pope. To no avail. The Church won’t act.

The Church fears many things. They are afraid that communism might spread and are grateful to the Nazis who stopped it. They are afraid that they might not be spared by the Nazis if they oppose too openly. And, as the movie seems to say, they ultimately don’t care too much about the Jews.

Gerstein and Fontana will go on fighting and trying to inform people, to make at least the Allies act. The Allies however don’t want to act as they don’t want to negotiate with criminals. Every time Gerstein and Fontana inform someone about the extent of the atrocities the numbers have risen. From an initial hundred thousand they are soon in the millions. These numbers are symbolized in the numerous takes of riding trains we see during the movie.

As an ultimate sacrifice and because he thinks it is his Christian duty the young priest joins a transport of Italian Jews to one of the concentrations camps.

Kurt Gerstein is a historical figure. After the war all the important figures of Nazi Germany were incarcerate. Gerstein, facing trial and before killing himself, writes a report on everything he has seen. Years later he is found not guilty and rehabilitated.

As interesting as the theme of this movie is I did not find it completely compelling. Maybe because it is based on a theater play (Rolf Hochhut’s Der Stellvertreter aka The Deputy)? I don’t know. I think you will have to find out for yourself. 4/5 stars but still valuable.

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Taking Sides (2001) or The Denazification of a Legend

Istvan Szabo’s Taking Sides tells the story of the so-called Denazification of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Helmut Furtwängler. (As can be read in the Jewish Virtual Library Denazification was the name given to “the efforts made by the Allies to remove active members of the former National Socialist Party from official public office and influential positions in Germany after World War II.”). The events take place in post-war Berlin. Furtwängler was the conductor of the Berlin Philarmonic. Before going to trial he is being questioned by an American investigator, Major Arnold, who shows no mercy and treats him not much different from the way the Gestapo treated people they questioned. Whatever Furtwängler says is taken against him. When he has nothing to say it is taken against him as well. This is a witch-hunt. There is not much action in this movie that’s why the two actors had to be extremely good. And they are. Harvey Keitel as the self-righteous Major who conducts the investigation is excellent. But Stellan Skarsgard starring as Furtwängler is amazing. This is sublime acting. I always liked him but in this movie he proves to be capable of acting far beyond the average.

Furtwängler is accused to have been a member of the Nazi party, to have been friends with Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. To have known what was going on but to choose to stay anyway. It becomes soon clear that none of this is true and therefore Major Arnold tries to prove him at least morally guilty. Even though he has helped many Jews to escape, Arnold thinks his staying is reproachable. There is a lot of food for thought in this movie. Furtwängler seems to have believed that music and art could better people and that it was his duty to stay. But he was also naïve to an incredible extent. An intellectual living in an ivory tower.

Before starting to question him and during the weeks of the interrogation Arnold watches movies of the concentration camps. The original footage we get to see is one of the most horrible I ever seen. A huge mass of naked emaciated bodies are being shoved away like dirt… This fuels Arnolds’s hatred and lets him lose the right perspective.

One of the best elements of the movie is the clash of these two personalities; the gentle, well-mannered, soft-spoken old-world artist and the aggressive, vulgar and ignorant American major.

The movie does not only take place in the interrogation room. We follow the two young assistants of the major (played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr), both German, one of Jewish origin and just returned from the States, on their outings in the city. This adds a further dimension to the film and we get a feel for post-war Berlin.

Taking Sides has also one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen in a war movie. In an eerily beautiful scene we see an orchestra play in a ruin in the pouring rain.

As stated before, apart from being interesting, fascinating and underlined by beautiful classical recordings (Beethoven, Bruckner) this movie lives from the actors. The leading actors are outstanding but the supporting actors are very good too.

At times Taking Sides reminded me of Judgement at Nuremberg.

This is a movie for people interested in the post-war era, Denazification, classical music, Furtwängler and moral questions tied to WWII Germany. Is it understandable that Furtwängler stayed? Would it have been worse if all the good people had left? Are we allowed to think of self-preservation when faced with the mass destruction of others?

Instead of a trailer I decided to include a scene from the movie.