Cast: Ulrich Tukur (Kurt Gerstein), Mathieu Kassovitz (Riccardo Fontana), Ulrich Mühe (Doctor), Michel Duchaussoy (Cardinal), Ion Caramitru (Count Fontana), Marcel Iures (Pope), Friedrich von Thun (Gerstein's Father), Antje Schmidt (Mrs. Gerstein), Hanns Zischler (Grawitz), Sebastian Koch (Höss), Erich Hallhuber (Von Rutta), Burkhard Heyl (Director), Angus MacInnes (Tittman), Bernd Fischerauer (Bishop Von Gallen), Pierre Franckh (Pastor Wehr).
the decision of the Vatican to remain neutral on all political matters, especially the Holocaust
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
1936. Stefan Losz walks into the League of Nations and onto the platform. He says that since the matter of the killing of Jews is not being heard, he has found that this is the only way to reach people's hearts. He shoots himself to death with a pistol.
Hitler's Germany. A Nazi band is marching down the street playing Nazi tunes. S.S. officer Lt. Kurt Gerstein watches them. There is a group of "retarded" children with attention being put on a smiling young girl. The Nazis eliminate them using gas. Lt. Gerstein teaches other S.S. men how to properly use gas to eliminate vermin in barracks and other places. At home Gerstein learns that the S.S. eliminated the smiling girl and the rest of the mentally challenged children. The girl was his favorite niece. This upsets him greatly. He then learns that there have been thousands of cases of the elimination of such "unproductive" children. There is the feeling that the parishioners should be told. The reverend speaks out from the pulpit.
At work a shipment of 500 canisters of prussic acid arrive. Lt. Gerstein asks: "What will you uses all the acid for?" He truly wonders. He is then taken on his first visit to one of the camps. Approaching the camp he sees all the barbed wire and the guard towers. They go over to a place where Gerstein believes they are fumigating for vermin. The other officers look through a peep hole and then bring him to the front so he can see. Gerstein is absolutely shocked at what he sees. "There are people in there being gassed." He is told that there are not ten people alive who have seen what he has just seen, as if that was something to be proud of.
Gerstein informs the Swedish ambassador that whole families of Jews are being exterminated. He tells the ambassador that he must tell his government so that the Swedes can warn the Americans and the English. Gerstein also tells his fellow parishioners and clergy. This time they do not speak out against the extermination. Rather the attitude is: "What should we do?" as in "what can we do about it?" He is also told that nobody will believe him. Gerstein tells them that 10,000 Jews a day are being exterminated. Someone tells him that if he has any chance of being believed, he better lower that 10,000 number to something that can be believed.
Gerstein is given the job of providing the gas chambers with high quality crystals. He next speaks to the Catholic clergy. But nobody will believe him. And they ask him: "Are you Catholic?" No. Gerstein says: "What I saw haunts me day and night." The gassed people die clinging to each so tightly that they can't be pried apart. They tell him to leave. The head man even thinks that the Gestapo put Gerstein up to this in order to check on the political obedience of the clergy. But one priest wants to hear more about Gerstein's story. His name is Riccardo Fontana and his father is very close to the Pope. Fontana wants others to know about this, especially the Pope. But this is not going to be easy to do.
Gerstein tells his wife to take the children and leave. He wants them to stay with his father.
Gerstein can't believe that the Pope doesn't know what is happening concerning the Jews. The priest tells him that the Pole likes Hitler because he defeated communism in Germany. Fontana goes to Italy. At the Vatican he asks where is his father. He finally sees his father and tells him that the Jews are being exterminated. A cardinal arrives. There is talk of the Germans being blocked at Stalingrad. Concerning the Jewish question, the cardinal says: "We've become used to the Jews' whining." An American representative at the Vatican says that the Americans have heard rumors, but nothing definitive.
Gerstein speaks with his father who does not believe the talk about the Jews. He says that the Jews left for American long ago. If Jews are being sent to the camps, then they are sent there to work. He urges his son to "Drop all the sentimental nonsense." Riccardo is not having much luck either. The cardinal is opposed to telling the Pope about any such an idea. But Riccardo goes against the wishes of the cardinal and tells the Pope about the extermination of the Jews. The Pope only says: "I pray for them."
The S.S. officers in charge or the extermination process are complaining they re not receiving enough gas canisters to keep the death machines going. Gerstein is deliberately doing things to slow the supply of gas. But he has to be careful or face extermination himself. He has been told that he should leave Germany, but he refuses saying that he must testify about all this.
Riccardo and Gerstein hope that the Pope will mention the Jewish extermination in his Christmas speech. They listen intently to the radio, but the Jews and the concentration camps are not even mentioned. So Riccardo asks Gerstein if he can go with him to the Vatican. He says that what the Pope needs is to hear the testimony of an eye-witness. But again the cardinal intervenes. He says it's absolutely impossible for the Pope to listen to an S.S. officer.
The rumor is that the Russians have won at Stalingrad. Gerstein visits his wife. A group of top Catholic clergymen are shown a map with all the locations of the German concentration camps. The clergymen say that the Holy Father has to remain neutral. The American ambassador says that only the winning of the war will save the Jews. They cannot do anything that might slow the war effort.
Gerstein tells Riccardo that over three million people have been gassed. Around 400 S.S. men descend on Rome picking up Italian Jews. Riccardo's father gives some Jewish families sanctuary. Riccardo and Gerstein arrive at the Vatican. They tell everyone that the German are arresting Jews right here, around the corner in fact. Riccardo's dad speaks with the Pope. The most recent word is that the Germans are now picking up converts to Catholicism too. The Pope tells him to speak with the German ambassador to the Vatican and tell him about the Pope's sorrow and anger about the situation. Riccardo still tries to get Gerstein in to talk to the Pope. But his father repeats the refrain that the Pope can't possibly be even seen with an S.S. officer. The cardinal agrees saying that "It is out of the question. No S.S. officer can come in here." He then tells Riccardo to stop pushing: "It is exhausting us and poisoning our existence."
The cardinal speaks with the German ambassador and tells him that the arrests in the area should end now. The Pope doesn't want to make a formal request, but there are limits.
Gerstein is giving up, but Riccardo still has hope of getting the message through. News arrives that the Americans are bombing Monte Casino in Italy. The library has been destroyed. The priests are very upset about this, especially so compared to their little concern over the Jews. Riccardo is able to tell the Pope that "One thousand Jews will be deported unless you act." The Pope responds: "In this matter, only moderation can honor us." And, after all, many Jews are under their protection. Riccardo's father asks the Pope to act personally. In a last ditch effort to get his message through, Riccardo puts a yellow star of David on his cassock. The reaction is: "This is blasphemy!" Riccardo's father asks to be relieved.
Riccardo goes to be with the Jewish people being sent away to the concentration camps. An officers tells Riccardo to get on one of the cattle cars. At the concentration camp the message is spread: "There's a Catholic priest with the Jews." Someone says that "He may be a Vatican spy." But another officer intervenes and tells them to bring the priest to him. It's hard for the officers to understand. But the S.S. officer who is a doctor and a friend of Gerstein decides to settle the matter: "I hereby decree that he is a Jew." Riccardo is sent to join the Jewish inmates.
Later the S.S. doctor calls in Riccardo to speak with him. The officer wants to make a deal with Riccardo. He will let him go if he will agree to use his contacts to provide him with sanctuary and to help him get out of Germany. After all, he says, in six months to a year, it will be our turn to run. Riccardo absolutely refuses to play ball with the officer. Gerstein rushes into the concentration camp with a signed paper from Himmler, head of the S.S. and the Gestapo, to let Riccardo go. Riccardo speaks with Gerstein and tells him that he will share the fate of the Jewish inmates. Gerstein tells him that it is wrong to sacrifice himself like this. Riccardo's mind, however, is made up and he returns to be with the other inmates.
The SS. doctor confronts Gerstein and tells him they know that he forged the letter from Himmler. So "It's up the chimney with him. He'll get faster to heaven." He then tells Gerstein to go away. Gerstein returns home, but tells his family that he must leave again very soon. On his way out, his father greets him. He wants to know from his son if it's all true? Is the secret weapon ready? Gerstein kind of sighs internally and tells his father "Yes." At the concentration camp the inmate workers find Riccardo's cassock with the yellow start of David.
The war is over. Gerstein is still alive. He writes a long report about what he knows about the Holocaust. The Allies have him in prison. Later he reads a report concerning him from the Allies, saying that a man so committed to Christianity such as Gerstein, should have refused to cooperate with Hitler's war and extermination machines. Gerstein is found hanging in his cell. The question is did someone hang him or did he hang himself. They want a full written report about the matter.
The S.S. doctor and one-time friend of Gerstein receives help from the Vatican to escape to Argentina.
Gerstein's report contributed to the authentication of the Holocaust. Twenty years after his written report, Kurt Gerstein's reputation and contribution were "rehabilitated".
Good movie. Dealing with the lack of response from the Pope and the Vatican concerning the fate of the Jews is a pretty controversial topic to discuss or make a movie about it. It just seems that everyone was turning their backs on the Jews. And everybody had what they thought were legitimate reasons/excuses not to get involved: it's not true, the war effort would suffer, can't violate our neutrality, no one cares, etc., etc. It seems in the case of the Catholic church there was a lot of denial as to the validity or extent of the reports about mass extermination. But, of course, this was bolstered by centuries of anti-Semitism. Organizations seem to be so slow to responds to genocide. Think how long it took for their to be some reaction to the genocide going on in the countries that once all belonged to Yugoslavia under Tito. And the slow response to the genocide in Uganda. And presently, in Darfur, genocide is taking place with not much of any will to stop it. Ulrich Tukur (Kurt Gerstein) and Mathieu Kassovitz (Riccardo Fontana) were both terrific in their performances.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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