This exceptionally well made biographical portrait of a priest in Nazi
Germany is not only intelligent, but reveals a chapter of the holocaust
that's rarely detailed or, even, referred to. While 6 million Jews were being
killed and drawing the world's sympathy, others were victimized, as well. We
hear of similar Nazi treatment of homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled.
This story describes a less well-known target group that occupied a special
compound of Dachau concentration camp -- one devoted to the Christian
Abbe' Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes), a priest of Luxembourg, strives to exist
in the harsh prison alongside his brothers in the church, deacons, priests,
bishops from all over Europe, as men die for lack of water, malnutrition and
hangings. His sinewy moral standards are brought to the point of compromise
with acts that will haunt him. When, one day, he's ordered to follow the
barrack's brutal Nazi master, the last thing he expects is to be released.
But, it's no act of mercy. As he arrives in Luxembourg, he's picked up by
Untersturmfuhrer Gebhardt (August Diehl) and ordered to appear at his office
at SS headquarters the next day. Gebhardt drops the emaciated priest off at
his sister Marie's (Bibiana Beglau) flat, astounding her with his unexpected
Adhering to the letter of his orders, he shows up in Gebhardt's office on
time and it's there that he learns his release is limited to nine days and is
entirely conditioned on his willingness and ability to apply his influence on
the Bishop of Luxembourg (Hilmar Thate). Kremer is charged with convincing
the Bishop to cease his rebellion against the Nazi occupation, and ringing
his church bell daily in protest. If Kremer can accomplish this he will save
the lives of his fellow clergymen and spare himself further imprisonment.
Unwillingness is a ticket back to Dachau and a worse fate for his peers.
Gebhardt is an intellectual who claims to have studied for the priesthood but
who gave it up in favor of having a stronger influence working for the party.
His method, beyond out and out homicide when his temper gets the better of
his preference for persuasion, is intellectual jousting, in which his main
weapon is philosophical arm wrestling with his competitor's mortality hanging
in the balance. Knowing that Kremer may feel that he's being asked to
betray his beliefs, he brings up the parallel of Judas and attempts to turn
that icon of betrayal into an important part of a process, a tool of god.
This occurs against the backdrop of the Vatican's silence about Nazi
treatment of its churches and clergymen in a politically expedient avoidance
of out and out decimation, of which the Nazi's have proven themselves more
than capable. The only thing that seems to be a restraint on the Nazi side
would be their fear of a church-induced rebellion and loss of order.
But the hero of this piece is director Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum")
who, using the prison journals of one Jean Bernard as his basis, turns a
question of faith into a continually interesting philosophical dilemma, a
contest of will and mind-play between a Nazi heathen with the threat of life
and death in his hands, and a clergyman armed only with his faith and the
guidance of his morality.
Schlondorff's greatest tools in forging this story into a moving and
meaningful character study is taste, balance and a pro's inherent sense of
dramatic construction. This applies to the writing (screenplay by
Eberhard Gorner and Andreas Pfluger), casting, and editing, as well,
effectively dramatizing this little-explored chapter of evil in Nazi
~~ Jules Brenner