Costa-Gavras's valuable addition to the Holocaust canon. As an adaptation of The Deputy -- Rolf Hochhuth's pedagogical stage play of forty years earlier, and a hotly controversial one at the time in pointing an accusatory finger at the Catholic Church, among others, for complicity or at least acquiescence in the death camps -- the film might not seem to be a strong prospect for freshness. Yet the streamlining of the play's unwieldy text and the tightening of its thematic net have transformed it into a completely new work. The filmmaker, even so, maintains the play's spotlight on two principal figures: the SS officer and "sanitation" expert, Kurt Gerstein, who, when he witnessed first-hand the uses to which his expertise was being put ("There aren't ten people alive who've seen what you just saw"), felt it was his duty as a Christian to raise the alarm; and the fictitious Riccardo Fontana, a Jesuit priest stationed in Munich who strove to relay the information to his superiors in the Vatican, trusting that an official denunciation from the Holy Father would have the same effect as the earlier outcry over the German "euthanizing" of "unproductive citizens" -- a trial run for the Final Solution. (Jewish characters are strictly peripheral.) How the SS man arrives at the point of revelation, bit by bit, clue by clue, has something of the air of a thriller, although it seems unavoidable that this air will gradually leak out. (The leitmotif of the trains, shuttling to and from the camps to the accompaniment of some furious sawing on orchestral strings, tries intermittently to pump the air back in: the death toll escalates daily.) Even streamlined as it is, the film cannot entirely escape the talky instructionalism of its source; and the predetermined outcome somewhat limits its possibilities for suspense. But this is just to say that it is primarily a history rather than a thriller. It is not Z. It is nearly as far from it dramatically as it is alphabetically. It is unfalteringly sober, steady, self-possessed, devoid of hype and hysteria, free of stridency and bombast, respectful of its subject. And if superficially it falls into the muckraking mode by which the director made his reputation (The Confession, State of Siege, Special Section, et al.), it emerges in the end as his crowning glory. Ulrich Tukur, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ulrich Mühe. 2002.

Duncan Shepherd

  • Rated NR

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