Battlefield for the soul

  • September 22, 2004
{mosimage}We ask God not to lead us into temptation because temptation is real. If Jesus had to face it in His 40 days in the desert, then there's no reason to believe any of us will be spared such a quintessentially human experience.
The German-language film The Ninth Day (Der Nuente Tag) might seem on the surface to be another film trying to burn the memory of Europe's greatest shame onto celluloid, or another glance at the controversy over whether Pope Pius XII and Vatican officials played heroes or villains during the Holocaust, but it is really all about a man faced with temptation.

Before screening the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September, director Volker Schlondorff told the audience he made the movie, "not because it is morally important. It's just because the human story is so deep and so suspenseful."

It's also the true story of Msgr. Jean Bernard, the pre-war head of the International Catholic Film Organization (now SIGNIS) and post-war editor of the Luxembourg daily newspaper The Luxembourg Word (Luxemburger Wort). In between, Bernard was arrested and sent to Dachau work camp in 1941. He was prisoner number 25487, one of 2,579 priests who toiled at Dachau as punishment for speaking out against Nazi policies. More than half of them died there.

The diary Bernard kept of his 20 months in Dachau became a best seller in Luxembourg in 1945. Though it's been out of print for years, it is a strange episode from Bernard's concentration camp experience which forms the basis for The Ninth Day.

Bernard was released from Dachau and sent home to Luxembourg for nine days. During those nine days Nazi occupation forces wanted him to persuade his bishop to endorse co-operation with the occupying force and agree to Nazi church policy. The bishop had become a problem for the occupiers by ringing the cathedral bells at noon every day. The bells were a symbol of resistance.

If Bernard went underground, tried to escape or failed to persuade his bishop, the Gestapo promised to start killing occupants of Dachau's priest block.

In the film, Bernard becomes Fr. Henri Kremer. He is tempted to violate his conscience by Gestapo Untersturmfuhrer Gebhardt - a baby-faced ex-seminarian who forsook the priesthood for a career in Nazi administration just two days before his ordination.

{amazon id='B000BB1NTU' align='right'}In the battle for Kremer's soul, Gebhardt combines Nazi ideology with Catholic theology to present an argument for accommodating Nazi ideals.

Jesus may have been a Jew, but it was His will to overcome His Jewishness which makes Jesus a model for humanity, says Gebhardt in a dialogue scriptwriters lifted from the writings of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.

"By defeating the Jew in me, I am doing the Lord's work," says Gebhardt.

{sidebar id=2}Then Gebhardt tries to persuade Kremer to take Judas as his model.

"I claim Judas was pious," he says.

Without Judas there would have been no Catholic Church, according to the Nazi.

Though these arguments may seem too simple-minded to be of much effect, the arguments between the two men become a kind of battle. Will Kremer choose the comfort of doing what he is told, or the uncertainty of following his conscience?

Doubt over Kremer's ability to stick with his conscience is dramatized in a memory he carries with him from the previous summer in the concentration camp. An episode actually lifted from the writings of concentration camp survivor Primo Levi, Kremer is tortured by the memory of an afternoon during which he found a pipe dripping water behind a munitions factory. Rather than share the water with his perishing comrades, Kremer greedily slakes his thirst alone.

This shameful memory leads Kremer to doubt his ability to fend off Gebhardt's temptations.

Unlike Schindler's List, which tries to encompass the whole experience of the Nazi death machine, The Ninth Day is an intimate movie which takes place mainly in conversations between two men.

"The church as an institution is not my subject," said Schlondorff after the Toronto screening. "I think it's more interesting to tell the story of individuals."

The film may not be trying to settle the historical score over the church's conduct during the war, but by injecting the human into the politics and ideology which drove Europeans into genocide, Schlondorff tells a tale that should interest Christian hearts and minds.

Though Protestant, Schlondorff was educated for three years by Jesuits in France. And it was those Jesuits who encouraged the young man to become a film maker.

"This was my pay back," said Schlondorff, not in the sense of revenge but in the sense of an honourable debt. For this film, Schlondorff went back to his Jesuit friends for advice about how to dramatize the theological puzzle of temptation.

After seeing Alain Resnais' 1955 documentary on the death camps Night and Fog, a young Schlondorff had vowed never to try to dramatize a concentration camp. At the time he thought, "this is one thing that is beyond staging." Now he's made a film that begins with a crucifixion in a Nazi camp.

"Fifty years later you think better of it," he said.

While this may be his first depiction of a concentration camp, The Ninth Day is not far off the moral and historical dilemmas which have driven Schlondorff's best films including The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), winner of the 1979 Cannes Palm D'Or (tied with Apocalypse Now) and 1980 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The same face off between conscience and a totalitarian state plays out in Schlondorff's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

So far, no North American distributor has been announced, but there's every reason to believe The Ninth Day will be on our screens this winter.

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