Arts, On Campus, Review

Prof. John Michalczyk Lectures on Controversial Film ‘Amen’

Pope Pius XII’s refusal to publicly denounce Hitler and the actions of the Nazis during World War II is the central conflict in Costa-Gavras’ 2002 film Amen. Professor and director of the film studies program John J. Michalczyk gave a lecture Wednesday on this controversial film, which Costa-Gavras adapted from the 1963 play The Deputy by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth. Professor Michalczyk spent much of the lecture summarizing the film and giving the history behind it, discussing the filmmaker, Costa-Gavras, and all of the aspects of the film itself.

The publication of The Deputy infuriated the Catholic Church, as it depicted a series of incidents in which the pope could have spoken up about the atrocities being committed during the war, but refrained from doing so. Additionally, Michalczyk said that “… from 1945-1962… the Pope had a very positive relationship with the Jews… [and] this was the exact opposite.” The poster for the film, designed by Oliviero Toscani, depicts a swastika and a cross merged as one, which also incensed the Church.

Costa-Gavras himself was part of a family embroiled in controversy. His father fought in the resistance in Greece as part of a Communist Party resistance unit, and the anti-communist sentiment in Greece following the war meant he was unable to stay in Greece or go to the United States, so he went to France instead. Costa-Gavras’ education in film led to a 50-year career of filmmaking, making movies such as Z, Missing, The Confession, and Betrayed, among others.

Amen focuses on the true story of Kurt Gerstein, an Schutzstaffel hygiene officer in the Nazi army, and Ricardo Fontana, a Jesuit priest who works in the resistance. Gerstein is co-opted into helping and observing the extermination of Jews. It was “obligatory that a doctor stand there, look through the peephole, and guarantee that everyone was asphyxiated” by Zyklon B gas in the concentration camps, Michalczyk explained. Gerstein is forced to participate in this process at Hadamar—one of the most critical euthanasia centers for the Nazis. 

Fontana and Gerstein work together to try to persuade the pope to make a statement against the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews, and they are let down by his general speech about the church’s position on euthanasia and the sanctity of life. Although the pope himself did not speak out, due to his fear of the downfall of the church, he allowed priests and nuns to work in any way they could to help those being persecuted by the Nazis, particularly Jewish people, disabled people, the LGBTQ community, Gypsies, and political prisoners. 

Costa-Gavras is known as the “father of the political thriller,” Michalczyk said, and the film does not disappoint in that respect. It begins with a Jewish man shooting himself at the League of Nations in order to call attention to the persecution of Jews. In one scene, a young, mentally disabled girl is seen being bused to Hadamar and led into the showers, but the scene ends before she is murdered. 

When Gerstein is forced to watch the gassing for the first time, only his reaction and that of the doctor is shown. Instead of dramatizing the actual violence, Costa-Gavras forces his audiences to imagine it themselves, and to only see the reactions of those who regularly experienced and perpetuated those horrors. To Costa-Gavras, “the Greek tradition of suggesting but not showing violence on screen was more important and that’s why he just had the reactions shown,” Michalczyk said.

The film does not let its audience forget the other wrongdoings of the church during the Holocaust. It introduces Monsignor Hudal, a pro-fascism Viennese priest who worked for the Vatican and helped at least two or three major Nazi war criminals find safe passage to Argentina, in a system called the “ratlines.” 

Michalcyzk underscored this point by discussing Operation Paperclip, a secret program headed by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency through which the United States accepted hundreds of Nazi scientists into the U.S. Michalcyzk said these stories—and the film itself—are so “controversial because it has provided a rift between Christians and Jews.” Much of this evidence is held in the Vatican archives. 

“It is only when the Vatican archives open fully that we will understand what had happened—truly—during World War II with relationship to the Pope, and Costa-Gavras captured that in a controversial film to show you what we still have to do in understanding our own history” Michalcyzk said.

Photo courtesy of Boston College

November 4, 2020