Political Film Society - Newsletter #230 - July 15, 2005

July 15, 2005


Among the many horrific accounts of the Nazi era, Constantine Costa-Garvas's Amen (2003) raised serious questions about the silence of the Vatican. The Ninth Day (Der neunte tag), directed by Volker Schlöbdorff, provides a partial answer to that silence. When the film begins, Abbé Henri Kremer (played by Ulrich Matthes) is at Dachau in the "priest's block," forced to engage in calisthenics and hard labor without adequate food or water while enduring sadistic treatment for his crime of collaborating with the resistance. On January 15, 1942, Kremer is released and sent back to his hometown, Luxembourg, because the clever Nazi official in charge has a plan. A faithful Catholic, Untersturmführer Gebhardt (played by August Diehl) decided some years earlier that he could make a difference if he joined the Nazi Party rather than becoming a priest, but his continuing Catholicism now places him in danger, as he may be reassigned to be a commandant of a concentration camp if his plan founders. Thus, he tells Kremer that the "discharge" from Dachau is actually a nine-day leave of absence to consider making an important statement; if Kremer will affirm that one can both be a Catholic and a Nazi by agreeing to the Nazi occupation, then dialog will open between Berlin and the Vatican and priests at Dachau will be released. Kremer now has eight days to decide about the Faustian pact. The film then subtitles each day in a macabre countdown. Kremer's first instinct is to contact his superior, the Archbishop Philippe of Luxembourg (played by Hilmar Thate), but the latter feigns illness and will not see him. Kremer's brother Roger (played by Germain Wagner) and friends offer to take him to Switzerland, but he demurs, and his sister Marie (played by Bibiana Beglau) thereby avoids arrest. On the seventh day, the Archbishop finally agrees to see Kremer but offers no advice. Saying that he has not left the cathedral since the Nazis took over, he informs Kremer of the reason for the Vatican's silence: As is well known, many Jews converted to Christianity in Holland. Early in the Nazi occupation of Holland, the converts were ordered deported to concentration camps, whereupon the Bishop of Utrecht objected; in response, not only were Dutch priests deported but some 20,000 Gentile Catholics as well. Meanwhile, Kremer's deadline approaches. If he believes Gebhardt, many may be saved, but Catholicism will be discredited for sure. A lengthy subtitle at the end points out that the deathrate among the many who were in the "priest's block" at Dachau was fifty percent. Although Kremer is a fictional person, Jean Bernard, one of the surviving priests of Dachau, wrote an account of the story that is fictionalized in The Ninth Day. The Political Films Society has nominated The Ninth Day as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2005. MH



The Great WaterThe breakup of Yugoslavia was a tragedy, especially because of the ethnic cleansing that took place. Accordingly, some recall with nostalgia the way in which the various ethnic groups lived together in harmony under Marshall Iosip Broz Tito. The Great Water (Golemata voda), a Macedonian film directed by Ivo Trajkov and based on the novel by Zhivko Chingo, will disabuse readers of the myth of Tito's era of so-called ethnic harmony. Instead, one will ask, "Ethnic harmony at what price?" Lem Nikodinosky (played by Meto Jovanovsky) is dying of a heart attack as the film begins, evidently after a recent election in which he ran as an advocate of democratic reform. Jovanovsky's voiceovers fill the unspoken silence between scenes of incredible intensity during the time when Lem (played as a twelve-year-old by Saso Kekenovsky) was in an orphanage during 1945-1946. Lem was one of several dozen children who were orphaned by the devastation of World War II in the Balkans. The Yugoslav Partisans, allied with Tito and Iosef Stalin, ran the orphanage as a training camp for Young Pioneers, complete with calisthenics, indoctrination, severe punishment for absurd offenses, and self-criticism sessions. One day, thirteen-year-old Isak Keyten (played by Maja Sankovska) enters the camp, fascinating Lem with his charisma. Lem asks the reclusive but proud Isak to be his friend, a reward for which Isak exacts a price: to ask a question in class about the health of a certain student. For his questioning, Lem is denounced, put in the cellar on a bread-and-water diet, and is forced to confess errors in public in order to gain his release. In secret, Isak then uses a knife to draw blood from both wrists and place the blood in a cup; after the two boys drink the blood, Isak proclaims that they are brothers. Isak, however, is both a Christian believer and a black magic practitioner. He also plays tricks on several members of the staff, including Olivera (played by Verica Nedeska), the sadistic deputy commandant of the camp, who becomes sexually attracted to him. But Olivera later responds to one of his alleged devilish deeds by poking out Isak's eyes and notifying higher-ups that the commandant, Ariton (played by Mitko Apostolovsky), has proved unworthy. Nevertheless, Lem is responsible, writes a confession on a scrap of paper, and plans to give the paper to Ariton, who has a death sentence on his head. Having been pleased by Lem's previous self-criticism rhetoric, Ariton at the end of the film refuses to read the paper and tells Lem that he is being transferred to an academic competition in Belgrade. There are many mysteries in the film, but the greatest is how the little boy grew into a great democratic politician. Clearly, the story is a paradigm for the suffering of the people of the former Yugoslavia, and perhaps an explanation why in 1948 Tito broke with Stalin and accepted more diversity. The Political Film Society has nominated The Great Water as best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2005.  MH