`Amen.,' at Jewish film fest

Critic's Choice

Film

April 06, 2003|By Michael Sragow

Thirteen years ago, director Constantin Costa-Gavras (Z) made Music Box, a superb courtroom thriller about a first-generation American lawyer (Jessica Lange) defending her father against charges that he committed atrocities in Hungary, as an Arrow Cross Nazi - a "Special Section" policeman. It was partly about the cynicism of older generations who hate to be reminded of the Holocaust and partly about the ignorance of younger generations who don't know the first thing about it.

The director again prods audiences out of their complacency about genocide with Amen., an adaptation of Rolf Hochhuth's drama The Deputy, about a German Protestant chemist in the SS (Ulrich Tukur) and a Jesuit priest with solid Vatican connections (Mathieu Kassovitz) who petition the pope and others to speak out against the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Costa-Gavras is at his most restrained here - by choice. After a shocking opening suicide also drawn from history, the movie becomes a sophisticated, trenchant series of contrasts between the questing honesty of the heroes and the cowardice, cynicism, denial, misguided patriotism and political expedience that afflict nearly everyone around them. Unlike Music Box, this film doesn't catch fire, but it's a smart, tenacious piece of work, with some remarkable moments and images, such as the SS chemist's soul-shriveling flinch at his first sight of the gas chambers in action. To his great credit, Costa-Gavras never flirts with the pornography of atrocity. Instead, to convey the relentlessness of the Nazi death machine, he crisscrosses his compositions with cattle cars going back and forth from death camps. As James Agee said of the trains in a more stylized view of mass murder, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, "they wind the film up like a tight spring."

In what may be Baltimoreans' only opportunity to see this ambitious work on the big screen, the William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival presents Amen. today at 3 p.m., at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Avenue, Owings Mills. Admission: $8.

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