Grade: B

When Rolf Hochhuth’s “Der Stellvertreter” appeared on stage and in print in 1963, it caused a sensation: few voices had previously been raised to accuse Pope Pius XII of tacitly accepting the Nazi Final Solution and thereby betraying his moral duty to speak out forcefully against the slaughter of the Jews, and certainly none had previously had the audacity to make the charge in so public a forum. Over the intervening forty years arguments about the papacy’s World War II policies toward Hitler’s regime have grown far more prevalent (John Cornwell’s bestseller “Hitler’s Pope” is the most recent example), and the play–which, to tell the truth, was always self-indulgently pedantic and overlong–has faded into obscurity, more significant from a historical perspective than a dramatic one. Now Constantin Costa-Gavras, that most activist of mainstream filmmakers, has unearthed the drama and adapted it for the screen. “Amen.,” as he’s retitled the play (the period is apparently part of the moniker), is extremely well-made–a diligent, intelligent piece of work. But it can’t escape a slightly musty feel, as though the material were well past its prime, and the melodramatic turns of the final act work less well in the more realistic cinematic medium than they did on the boards. In addition, Costa-Gavras deliberately distances the viewer from the horrors of the holocaust–an approach that deliberately keeps the picture more an intellectual exercise than an emotional journey. As a result, “Amen.” is certainly admirable, but it isn’t the wrenching experience it might have been.

The picture is structured around the experiences of two men. One is an historical figure, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur)–an SS chemist who heads a program of treating contaminated water to make it drinkable again. He learns that the process he’s devised–and in particular the gas used in it–has become the preferred means of killing Jews in the death camps. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s happening, Gerstein does what he can to sabotage the Final Solution, but he also takes word of the atrocity to the papal nuncio in Munich, who dismisses him as a Nazi provocateur. However, the nuncio’s secretary, a young (and fictional) Jesuit named Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), takes the information seriously and tries to bring it to the attention of the pope, believing that he will act on it immediately and publicly denounce the murder of the Jews. (Riccardo’s well situated to do so, since his father is a member of the papal administration and he’s well acquainted with many of the most powerful cardinals in the curia.) But even though he enlists Gerstein to come to Rome and provide direct testimony, the Vatican proves reluctant to protest, believing it important to allow Hitler to defeat Stalin before denouncing him. When word of the genocide is passed along to the American ambassador, he too proves hesitant to become involved. Gerstein is compelled to live with the reality of the German policy until the war concludes. Meanwhile Riccardo, disgusted at what he perceives as the pope’s shirking of his moral duty, attaches a Star of David to his robe and is himself taken to the camp to which Rome’s Jews are being deported.

Costa-Gavras opens up Hochhuth’s play visually, of course; he and cinematographer Patrick Blossier employ the Italian and Romanian locations to considerable effect–the supposed Vatican interiors are extremely impressive, and the compositions equally so. But dramatically he keeps the focus squarely on the conversations among the major characters, concentrating on their reactions to the horrors around them rather than the horrors themselves. Thus we’re given Gerstein’s appalled face as he observes the gassing of Jews through a small window in the camp wall rather than the event itself, and the process of the Final Solution is simply indicated by periodic shots of long trains of cattle cars steaming across the countryside, their human cargo implied but not actually shown, and when the narrative moves to the camps themselves, they seem curiously deserted (a glimpse of bodies being buried is shot from a discreet distance). The most direct dramatization of the Holocaust comes toward the close, when the Roman Jews are being rounded up, and the scene is positively decorous beside similar sequences in “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist.” This is quite intentional, of course; it focuses our attention on the debates among the characters, leaving us to imagine what lies behind them. The result is a very wordy film, even if the words are on a very powerful subject and often incisively expressed.

Of the actors, Tukur is certainly the most impressive, drawing a sensitive and affecting portrait of a man driven by a sense of moral outrage but trapped by circumstances (including a family to protect). Kassovitz, in a less shaded role, expresses simmering indignation well enough, but is asked to do little more. Marcel Iures cuts a suitably remote figure as Pius XII, and Michel Duchaussoy a properly diplomatic one as the papal secretary of state, but the most memorable supporting turn comes from Ulrich Muhe as a smugly odious German officer–the very image of the bad Nazi.

“Amen.” is a well-made film on a topic of historical significance, but it’s less a gripping drama than a stimulating bit of polemic. Anyone looking for a balanced treatment of the subject is advised to search elsewhere, but on its own argumentative terms, Costa-Garvas’ picture has a certain fascination.