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Film / Amen

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"I have seen what was not meant to be seen."

Kurt Gerstein: They are making us accomplices of a crime that will doom the German people for eternity!
Ludwig Gerstein: Stop listening to British propaganda, please.

Amen is a 2002 German/French/Romanian film directed by Costa-Gavras which explores the Real Life attempt by SS officer Kurt Gerstein to inform foreign powers about the Death Camps of Nazi Germany during World War II, notably by trying to reach the Vatican, with the help of a fictional young Jesuit priest named Riccardo Fontana.

In 1942, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) of the SS Hygiene Institute travels to Poland to instruct the troops in the safe storage and purification of water, and to observe the use of the new form of the chemical Zyklon B he has developed to eradicate typhus. However, accompanied by a sinister SS doctor, he is taken to the newly established Belzec extermination camp to witness his creation being put to its true, grisly use. A horrified Gerstein returns to Germany and, despite having been sworn to secrecy, he begins desperately attempting to inform the international community of the atrocities. Mindful of the successful campaign against the Aktion T4 program spearheaded by the Catholic Church, he tries to convey the message to the Vatican, but finds his local bishops unmoved.

However, when Father Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz) hears Gerstein's story, he vows to alert Pope Pius XII in person, as the two men are certain that a clear condemnation from the Holy Father will rouse German Catholics into action once again. Meanwhile, Gerstein returns to Poland to observe the mass murder and provide further testimony. He tells Father Fontana, "I will be the eyes of God in that hell." But he quickly finds himself unable to passively watch, and begins risking his life to sabotage and slow down the killing in any way he can.

This film contains examples of:

  • Above Good and Evil: The Doctor remarks after witnessing a gassing that it is "quite horrible", but believes it is necessary to subdue his conscience for the sake of the ideals of Nazism.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Two characters. It is implied that Father Riccardo Fontana, who is portrayed by half-Jewish actor Mathieu Kassovitz, is from a family of converts. The Gersteins also suspect that their maid Mrs Hinze is Jewish, but do not ask her, or convey their suspicions to any authorities.
  • Argentina Is Nazi-Land: The film's final scene, where The Doctor is preparing to catch a boat to Argentina with help from a Vatican cardinal.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • In the movie, Kurt Gerstein is depicted as more or less loyal to the Nazi regime until he learns what Zyklon B is really being used for. The real Gerstein opposed the Nazis as early as 1936, and was a Confessing Church member who only joined the SS to collect evidence of Nazi atrocities and try to save as many people as he could.
    • The whole "visit the camp" scene. Gerstein arrives as snow is present and is brought to the chambers, which explicitly use Zyklon B, in the company of, among others, Rudolf Hoess, the Auschwitz commandant. In real life, the visit took place in mid-August (Gerstein mentions the summer heat in his report), Hoess was in Auschwitz some 200 miles away, and the camps Gerstein visited - Belzec and Treblinka - did not use Zyklon B, but carbon monoxide in form of fumes from a large internal combustion engine (Auschwitz was in Germany and transporting cans of Zyklon was uncomplicated. The other Reinhard camps were located hundreds of miles inside the General Gouvernement, where such transports were much more risky - partisans and Home Army attacks were rife - and the railways were already clogging with military transports to the Eastern Front and Holocaust trains. Large engines using readily available and cheap petrol were much more convenient.) Kurt Gerstein did made a research in using Zyklon B to mass murder, but he never visited Auschwitz (whose operations were a top secret state issue and getting a "visit" would be complicated and take a long time to be greenlit).
  • Badass Preacher: Bishop von Galen, who storms unannounced into the local Nazi HQ to file a complaint against the murder of the disabled, and threatens to alert the faithful if the euthanasia programme does not immediately cease. This was an extremely risky move, and the Doctor is later heard hoping to have some "time alone" with the bishop after the war is won.
  • Berserk Button: Like a flick of a switch after just being warm and fuzzily friendly towards him, hearing his friend Kurt Gerstein is an SS member really blindly enrages Wehrmacht clerk Karl who never lets him live this down and borders on Black-and-White Insanity by vehemently and myopically refusing to acknowledge the actual good in Gerstein despite his membership.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The horrific evil of Nazi atrocities is condemned in no uncertain terms, but on the other hand, the film explores the uncomfortable reality that, in terms of concrete action, the Allies were fairly ambivalent towards the suffering of the Jews, Roma and others. The Swedish diplomat Göran von Otter tells Kurt that his efforts to get the Americans to accept 2,000 Jewish children have been in vain, and several times the Doctor at Auschwitz remarks "German cities are bombarded every night, but here the heavens are clear."
  • Blatant Lies: The various cover stories used to hide the Holocaust.
  • Break Them by Talking: The Doctor gives a couple of breaking lectures.
  • Cassandra Truth: Kurt is faced with disbelief and outright hostility even from avowed anti-fascists when he tries to spread the word that millions of people are being systematically exterminated, as to them the idea that civilized Europeans are capable of such barbarity is simply too far-fetched.
  • Corrupt Church / Saintly Church: Zigzagged. The film is certainly critical of the apathy of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church in the face of the mass murders, but also portrays the efforts of individual clergy to hide Roman Jews and Gypsies in monasteries and abbeys.
  • Dated History: There's been enough historical research since the play The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy and this film that adapts it to prove that the Vatican was not inactive against the Holocaust despite Pope Pius XII's apparent silence. Well researched and well reviewed books on the subject include The Myth of Hitler's Pope by David Dalin and Church of Spies by Mark Riebling. Moreover, it was later found out that the writer of the play the film is based off, Rolf Hochhuth, was influenced by a KGB disinformation campaign during the Cold War.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Many. Kurt's Heel Realization is triggered by witnessing what the other SS men refer to as "treatment" of 400 "units".
  • Despair Event Horizon:
    • The film opens with one of these, when the Slovak Jewish journalist Štefan Lux walks into the League of Nations and publicly shoots himself in protest against Nazi persecution and the world's silence.
    "My name is Štefan Lux. I am Jewish. The Jews are being persecuted in Germany and the world doesn't care. I see no other way to reach people's hearts."
    • Later, when the Nazis occupy Rome, Riccardo dons a yellow star and boards the transport headed for a death camp. On his arrival, the Doctor discovers that he is a Catholic priest and places him in the Sonderkommando, the unit responsible for burning bodies of the murdered. Gerstein finds him starved, weak, and utterly broken by what he has witnessed.
    • While in French custody, Gerstein receives the indictment of the Denazification court, which denounces him for not having extricated himself from the system of death, and commits suicide out of guilt.
  • Downer Ending: All of Riccardo and Kurt's efforts come to naught, Riccardo is gassed at Auschwitz, Kurt is implicated by the Denazification courts for his membership in the SS, despite his efforts to expose the Holocaust, and he commits suicide out of guilt and despair. In the final scene, the Doctor is shown preparing to catch a boat to Argentina.
  • Driven to Suicide: Štefan Lux. And later, Kurt himself.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Ulrich Mühe's character is known only as "the Doctor".
  • False Reassurance
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Doctor is quite handy with a deceptively friendly smile or a bad joke, which makes his colleagues underestimate how nasty he really is. Heck, his Establishing Character Moment has him smiling at a group of mentally disabled children as they are led to their deaths.
  • Foregone Conclusion: A priest and an SS Lieutenant try to prevent the Holocaust. They fail.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Karl when he nearly bite Gerstein's head off after learning about his SS membership.
  • Good Shepherd: Father Riccardo Fontana.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Despite the centrality of the Holocaust to the narrative, only two deaths occur onscreen. Much of the macabre is left to the audience's imagination.
  • Heel Realization: The look on Kurt's face after he witnesses the gassing of 400 people.
  • The Hero Dies: Ricardo is gassed after infiltrating a concentration camp. Later, Kurt hangs himself when the authorities refuse to believe he resisted the Holocaust.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Following the war, Gerstein was implicated by the Denazification courts for his membership in the SS and involvement with the Holocaust.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: A minor example: the film suggests that the Allies' failure to bomb the extermination camps was a result of indifference. In reality, the bombing of Auschwitz in particular was considered several times but was not undertaken because it was felt that all bombing would achieve was killing the prisoners anyway and destroying the gas chambers, thus destroying the evidence for the Holocaust.
  • The Idealist: Both protagonists sincerely believe in the power of public opinion and of the Catholic Church to put a stop to the atrocities. At first.
  • Implied Death Threat: Rudolf Hoess expresses his annoyance with delays in shipments of Zyklon-B to the death camps by stating that industrialists who assist the SS with the killing of "undesirables" for reasons of profit while falsely espousing Nazi ideology have reason to fear: "We can always Aryanize the Aryanizers".note 
  • Interservice Rivalry: Karl turns against his ex-friend Gerstein because of this between Karl's Wehrmacht membership and Gerstein's SS membership, however Karl is also an irrational and petty hypocrite when he threatens to sic the Gestapo (another SS organization) on him if he doesn't get off his back.
  • Karma Houdini: The Doctor finds a safe haven in the Vatican before finding a ship bound for Argentina. Also, the many people Gerstein tried to warn, but who vehemently disbelieved his reports of the then-impeding Holocaust were never seen punished neither.
  • Kick the Dog: The Doctor elects to keep Ricardo alive as long as possible specifically to torment him with having to helplessly watch the Holocaust unfold.
  • Kill the Cutie: Kurt's cheerful, mentally disabled niece Bertha is murdered during the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme at the beginning of the film.
  • Master Poisoner: Kurt Gerstein, albeit unintentionally.
  • Mercy Kill: The Doctor is shown complaining over the fact that the Catholic Church is ignorant about euthanasia after Bishop von Galen helped get Aktion T4 halted, and justifies having gassed mental patients on this basis.
  • The Mole: What Gerstein becomes in his efforts to expose the Holocaust.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: "The Doctor". He personally selects mental patients to be killed early in the war and later participates in the Holocaust.
  • Naïve Newcomer: At the start of the film, Kurt is a relatively new member of the SS, and a hopelessly naive one at that, from the audience's perspective.
    Kurt: I don't think the SS are in the business of killing children.
  • Nazi Protagonist: Kurt Gerstein is in the SS, and a member of the Nazi Party. He was expelled from the party in 1936, before the events of the film, due to protesting its anti-Christian rhetoric, and had even been arrested multiple times, but then readmitted in 1939. In a letter to his wife, Gerstein said he did so it as an agent of the Confessing Church (the dissident Lutheran movement) and hoped that their crimes could be exposed. He joined the SS for the same reasons. It has also been said that the murder of his sister-in-law during the Nazis' Aktion T4 "euthanasia" program motivated him (while the movie makes her his niece). The movie portrays him as turning on the SS and Nazi Party after learning about their crimes, contrary to this.
  • One-Word Title: Amen.
  • Rage Within the Machine: Kurt Gerstein unwittingly becomes one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust when his chemical supplies start to be used for killing people instead of typhus. He subtly tries to undermine the actions of his colleagues by delaying shipments of Zyklon-B, but it's entirely too little to make much of a dent.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Despite his ignorance of the true purpose of Zyklon B when developing it, and his attempts to stop the massacres, at the end of the film Gerstein commits suicide out of guilt.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: When one of the cardinals expresses outrage that Riccardo has requested a papal audience for a man who is not only an SS officer, but a traitor to his country, Riccardo replies:
    "Some betrayals are the last resort of the just."
  • The Social Darwinist: The Doctor, who in one scene shows up at Kurt's house with chocolates to celebrate Darwin's birthday by giving his children with an ape's skull made out of swiss chocolate, with a note inside containing a message about Evolutionary Levels.
  • The Sociopath: The Doctor can make himself appear charming, but he's more or less just mimicking the emotions of those around him. He genuinely doesn't see any problem with exterminating millions of people—even his Above Good and Evil speech to Gerstein seems rehearsed.
  • Time Skip: The film begins during the Aktion T4 euthanasia program, then jumps a couple of years ahead to 1942. Several jumps occur throughout the narrative until the timeline reaches mid-1945.
  • Title Drop: The Doctor breaks Riccardo by talking, claiming that the Nazis are the new "chosen people", to which the priest responds with a bitterly ironic "Amen!"
  • Turbulent Priest: Bishop von Galen is part of the effort to stop the Aktion T-4 euthanasia program. Father Fontana later attempts to reveal and stop the Holocaust, aiding dissident SS officer Kurt Gerstein.
  • Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Kurt is frequently praised for his effective "disinfection" techniques by high-ranking members of the SS. He himself finds the crimes he unwittingly helped to commit horrific.