Kill and Pray

For fifty years or so, Costa-Gavras has been warning about the slow decay of democratic norms and the moral sense. We must not have been listening, or something.

Z (1969) depicted the state-sponsored murder that led to the overthrow of democracy in the director’s native Greece.

SECTION SPECIALE (1975) was the first film to show how the French justice system under the Nazi occupation curried favor with the occupying forces by passing obscene “retroactive” laws that saw communists and Jews executed for crimes committed before the existence of the law they were prosecuted under.

AMEN. (2002) is about the church and the Nazis.

It’s actually a very fair, even-handed work, showing the real efforts made by the Catholic church to protect Jews from deportation. The trouble is, those efforts focussed largely on rescuing Jews in the immediate vicinity of the Vatican, including converts to Christianity. Pope Pius XII declined to ever condemn the death camps where millions were being murdered.

The character of the Pope is allowed to explain why he believes he can’t risk the church’s very existence by taking a stand against Hitler. But one suspects cowardice.

The film has two heroes. First is the conflicted Kurt Gerstein, a real historical figure, movingly played by Ulrich Tukur (a CG favourite, he’s also in the new one), sweaty, neurotic and a bit messianic. He’s an SS officer, as antisemitic as the next man, you’d think I (which, in the SS, is pretty damned antisemitic) recruited to provide technical assistance in the extermination of “subjects.” And he finds he’s reached the moral limit beyond which he can’t go: any prejudice he has against Jews is not enough to allow him to countenance this. But his actions thereafter are strange: he carries out the work. All the while, he’s clandestinely attempting to get church leaders to expose the genocide to the world. He tries his own German protestant church, and when that proves fruitless (the thing seems too big to believe, but people just don’t want to believe), he tries to go right to the top, to the Pope.

Meanwhile he attends meetings where he’s asked how to make gas chambers more efficient, and he gives sound advice based on his technical expertise in fumigation and disease control. And this advice allows many many more people to be exterminated rapidly. Their suffering is less protracted. But also a lot more people can be killed in a day.

The second protagonist is Matthieu Kassovitz as a young Jesuit who tries to help him. This character combines more than one historical figure, including a priest who voluntarily went into the death camps.

It IS a bit of a problem for the film, this divided focus. It’s based on a controversial play that was about nine hours long and seems never to have actually been performed in its entirety. Highly cinematic passages are interrupted by sudden irruptions of PLAY, where even the style of dialogue seems to become a bit stodgier, more orotund and unnatural. The difficulty is that Gerstein, the real man, is more interesting than the fictional/compound priest, who’s right about everything. Gerstein is only sort of right, and also a lot wrong.

He had been anti-Nazi, and then he joined the S.S. He clearly spent a lot of time, at great personal risk, trying to get the word out about the Holocaust. At the same time, he was deeply involved in it. Some of his contributions may have been a covert, deniable form of sabotage. Some of his contributions contributed materially to industrialized mass murder.

People still disagree about his culpability. He himself seems to have had conflicting ideas about it.

A classic bit of Costa-Gavras text onscreen ~

I recommend the film — it’s very good, if unbalanced and imperfect. The director’s discretion is admirable — we come as close to a gas chamber as you can get, but never see inside. We see Nazis looking through spyholes, we see their (various) reactions, and we see the wooden shutter-type door bulging as unseen victims hammer on it. That, surely, is enough.

And we see freight trains going back and forth throughout the film. The ones going left to right are empty.

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2 Responses to “Kill and Pray”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Not just “cowardice” but as Rolf Hochuth in his great play “The Deputy” demonstrates, complicity.

    Federico Fellini agrees

  2. This is the film of that play! Though a fairly loose adaptation, I think.

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