Directed by Costa-Gavras. Starring Ulrich Tukur and Mathieu Kassovitz.
On 25 July 1945 Kurt Gerstein was found hanged in his Paris prison cell. A Waffen SS officer, the deeply religious Gerstein was in charge of the Zyklon B gas used in the chambers at camps like Belzec and Treblinka. But he had also made efforts to alert the world to the genocide he had witnessed and was part of. His testimony while under arrest, known as the Gerstein Report, was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.
Greek director Costa-Gavras has spent his career studying what happens when the individual is pitted against the system and how each side reacts. With Gerstein he has one the most compromised and complicated characters on which to base a film and the result is a fascinating study of good, evil and the inaction dividing them. 'Amen' follows Gerstein's (Tukur) attempts to make a difference as he comes into contact with a fictionalised young Jesuit, Ricardo (Kassovitz), and looks at how each man exists within the power structures they are part of. Both struggle with their faith: Gerstein as he manufactures more gas and Ricardo when he rails against the Vatican as the genocide continues.
It is a deeply unsettling film which acts as a searing indictment of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII and pulls the viewer from Gerstein to Ricardo's worlds highlighting the resignation and apathy in each domain. Wisely, Costa-Gavras knows that the greatest horror is what you don't see and can only imagine. The screen time at the camps is limited - when Gerstein looks through a gas chamber peephole, we see his expression alone - but this approach simply adds to the tension as the two men battle against the realisation that time has run out.
In German actor Tukur and Frenchman Kassovitz, Costa-Gavras has two fine leads who constantly underplay the roles, making their performances all the more unsettling. The sentiments they hear expressed in offices and at dining tables pile on the horror and anger so that with every passing scene your exhaustion becomes more pronounced.
'Amen' caused controversy in Europe, not for its content, but rather the film poster, which saw a swastika and a crucifix merged into one. While Kassovitz said in a recent article that such uproar seemed necessary to shake people out of their apathy, it would be a shame if some denied themselves the opportunity to see this important film because of an image.