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With: Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Tukur, Antje Schmidt, Ulrich Mühe, Michel Duchaussoy, Ion Caramitru, Marcel Iures, Friedrich von Thun
Written by: Costa-Gavras, Jean-Claude Grumberg, based on a play by Rolf Hochhuth
Directed by: Costa-Gavras
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 132
Date: 02/13/2002

Amen (2002)

1 Star (out of 4)

Preaching for the Skies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Constantin Costa-Gavras has made a career out of political statements rather than movies. His first big hit, Z (1969), combined soapbox preaching with standard thriller elements and blew most viewers and critics out of their seats. His first big American film, Missing (1982), earned him an Oscar for best screenplay, and nominations for Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, despite the fact that no one really remembers the film 20 years later. Since then, Costa-Gavras has delivered a series of movies that critics, increasingly able to see through to his naked agenda and exhausted by the films' lack of personality, dismissed as forgettable flops. The last of these was 1997's horrid Mad City, with John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman.

Now, for some reason, he's back with Amen, which takes on, of all things, the Holocaust. Essentially the same idea as Schindler's List, Amen tells the story of a German SS officer, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), and a young priest, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), who discover the atrocities committed by the Nazis and try to do something about it from within the system.

It goes without saying that no one will disagree with the movie's politics, but the movie itself -- the artistry and storytelling -- are as flimsy and clumsy as you can get. Over the course of two hours-plus, Gerstein and Fontana walk into a series of rooms occupied by commanding officers and high priests and whatnot. They raise a bloody stink, screaming and yelling about the persecution of the Jews, to which the higher-ups reply with reserved calmness and authority. Defeated, Gerstein and Fontana storm angrily out of the room, and the next scene starts all over again in precisely the same way.

This has about the same effect as a left-wing radical throwing paint all over someone's fur coat over and over again -- it doesn't get across the message across or solve the problem. It alienates the very people whose sympathies you're trying to enlist. Schindler's List worked so well because its hero also comes from within the system but understands that he must work with subtlety and kindness to get what he wants. He needs to keep his enemies close, get them to trust him, in order to get away with rescuing 1,100 Jews right under their Nazi noses. Watching Oskar Schindler work -- watching him outwit the Nazis -- is part of that film's greatness.

Gerstein and Fontana also are supposedly based on real people, but if the film were true to the period, their behavior would have gotten them arrested for treason less than 30 minutes into the film. Even the small things in the film do not work. Costa-Gavras gives Gerstein a wife (Antje Schmidt) and child who turn up maybe three times, and the only thing she has to do is fret. Why bother? Even when Gerstein or Fontana aren't screaming at someone, they still come across as intense and miserable. They constantly speak in soapbox platitudes, and you never get a sense of who they are or what they like to eat or which pant leg they put on first. It doesn't help that most of the dialogue is in English, making the film sound and feel more like a textbook recreation than the real thing.

Amen does strike a small chord toward the end, as Fontana makes the ultimate sacrifice to prove to the Church what's really going on. He dons a Star of David and willingly boards the cattle cars bound for the concentration camps. He no longer screams or preaches, and we finally get a look into his eyes and can understand something about him.

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