An interview with Hitler's secretary
Movies with Holocaust themes have more prominence than usual this season.Skip to next paragraph
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Perhaps the traumas of Sept. 11 and the "war on terrorism" have renewed audiences' receptivity to the lessons such films carry about violence and the human capacity for evil.
Arriving this week are "Amen.," about an ill-destined effort to oppose Nazi genocide, and "Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary," a filmed interview with a woman who worked at Adolf Hitler's side. These films join "The Pianist," which earned major nominations in the just-completed Golden Globes race, and "Max," an intelligent drama that traces the roots of Nazism to broad cultural forces in Germany after World War I.
As its title hints, "Amen." is not only about the Holocaust, but also about the failure of a powerful religious institution - the Roman Catholic Church - to take a firm public stand against it.
This is a large issue, and "Amen." uses two characters to explore it. One is Kurt, a German engineer who joins Hitler's elite SS corps, feeling this is a patriotic way to serve his country. Learning to his horror that the potent decontamination gas he works with is being lethally used in secret extermination camps, he alerts leaders of his Protestant church, but their fear of Nazi power seals their ears and hearts.
The other protagonist is Riccardo, a Jesuit priest who believes Kurt's information. His father is a crony of Pope Pius XII, and he's certain the pontiff will mobilize his church's might against genocide if Kurt travels to the Vatican and sounds the alarm. But his faith is misplaced, the Pope refuses to act, and the Holocaust rolls on.
Based on Rolf Hochhuth's play "The Deputy," the screenplay of "Amen." counterpoints the experiences of a real-life SS officer with the words and actions of a fictional priest. The tale contains powerful messages about religious hypocrisy and the moral lassitude that allowed the Holocaust to continue after its reality filtered into public consciousness.
This said, it's regrettable that director Costa-Gavras puts more of his storytelling energy into simplistic psychology and suspense-movie action than historical depth and philosophical insight. This prevents "Amen." from becoming a Holocaust drama for the ages.
"Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary" occupies the opposite end of the movie spectrum, deriving its impact from language rather than spectacle. Directed by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer, it presents a 90-minute interview with Traudl Junge, an assistant to Hitler, who lived in his fortified bunker during the dictator's final days.
Ms. Junge had refused to give interviews following World War II, but agreed to participate in this project only because she felt compelled to share her memories at least once before the end of her life. She is commendably candid, admitting her failure to recognize the profound evil of a man she found personable and even kind during their day-to-day interactions.
It's likely some viewers will object to "Blind Spot" for crediting Hitler with a personality that seemed quite ordinary on some levels, just as some have denounced "Max" for portraying Hitler as a callow youth and thus "humanizing" him.
But it's essential to recognize that Hitler was a human being, not some supernatural monster. Junge's testimony is a salutary reminder that he was like other people in ways, and that the evil he manifested could visit us again if more civilized humans don't remain watchful.
• 'Amen.,' not rated, and 'Blind Spot - Hitler's Secretary,' rated PG, both deal with Holocaust violence.