German director Volker Schlöndorff may be most famous for 1979’s The Tin Drum, his controversial film about the rise of fascism as seen through the eyes of a young child. Condemned as child pornography shortly after its release here in the States (the movie does include several disturbing scenes involving its young protagonist), the film went on to gain considerable acclaim and even won an Academy Award in 1980 for Best Foreign Language Film. Still controversial to this day, it’s also viewed as a very important work.
With his previous film, Schlöndorff attacked the complacency of those who allowed fascism to rise and develop in Germany prior to World War II. With his latest film, The Ninth Day, Schlöndorff once again looks at the complacency of those who should’ve known better, although his subject is considerably larger and no less controversial. With The Ninth Day, Schlöndorff looks at the Catholic Church, and its reluctance to condemn Nazism outright during the war.
But rather than deal with the subject in a sprawling epic that winds it way from the Vatican to the heart of the Third Reich, through the concentration camps and across the battlefields, Schlöndorff takes the much simpler, wiser, and more affecting route. He focuses on the struggle between a single, embittered priest and the SS officer who seeks to turn him into a traitor.
As a member of the French Resistance, Henri Kremer had once been a staunch opponent of Nazism, publishing papers that directly contradicted the party’s core beliefs. However, being arrested and thrown into Dachau along with many other priests has robbed him of much of his fire. Now only a shell of his former self, Kremer simply does what he needs to do in order to survive, meekly accepting the abuses and cruelty of his Nazi captors. Even the services he holds in secret with the other priests ring hollow, futile attempts to hold onto faith that nevertheless seem utterly hopeless.
Much to his surprise, Kremer is suddenly released one day and sent home to Luxembourg, ostensibly because of his mother’s recent death and his family’s influence. However, the Nazis have learned of his obeisance, and decide he’ll be the perfect man for their plans. Placed under the watch of Gebhardt, a young and charismatic SS officer, Kremer is told he’s only on a 9-day furlough, and that the Nazis have a special mission for him.
The bishop of Luxembourg, Kremer’s superior, has been ringing the church bells every day, an obvious and potent form of protest against the Nazi occupation. Furthermore, he has refused to meet with Nazi envoys and sign an agreement stating that Nazism is not a threat, but rather, a defender of the Church. Gebhardt hopes that Kremer can convince the bishop to change his mind. If not, he’ll be sent back to Dachau (and presumably his death), his fellow priests will be killed, and his remaining family will be punished.
Obviously, the thought of condoning the Nazis horrifies Kremer, especially since he’s experienced their cruelty firsthand. However, Gebhardt’s arguments prove most persuasive, especially when he asks what Kremer would rather have — a Nazi-defended Church, or, should the atheistic Bolsheviks in Russia win, no Church at all. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Gebhardt is no mere SS stooge; he had studied to be a priest himself, and knows the Bible just as well as Kremer, if not better. This becomes quite apparent as the two spend time debating the character of Judas.
Judas, Gebhardt claims, was a true hero, someone who sacrificed himself so that Jesus could overcome Jewish barbarism and institute Christianity (which, of course, finds its fulfillment in Nazism). Kremer should see himself in a similar light, Gebhardt argues — a traitor of his own beliefs, but a traitor for a nobler cause, the survival of the Church. Although Kremer finds the notion abhorrent, he can barely withstand Gebhardt’s eloquent arguments. Haunted by the cruelty he’s seen, tormented by the guilt of what he’s done to survive, and frustrated by the silence of his bishop, of the Church, and even of God, Kremer tries to hold onto his faith even when there seems to be no reason for doing so.
Aside from a few very minor quibbles here and there — due mainly to some stylistic choices Schlöndorff makes early on — The Ninth Day is a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking thriller from start to finish. It handles a delicate matter quite adeptly, I thought. It doesn’t condemn the Church — characters comment on the terrible losses incurred by those Christians who did stand up against the Nazis — but it doesn’t let it off the hook, either. Interestingly enough, the harshest critic of the Church is Kremer himself, as he attempts to fathom its silence in the face of so great an evil.
Much of the film’s impact has to do with the two lead actors, both of whom give wonderful performances. Ulrich Matthes is superb as Kremer, his gaunt visage and dark, sunken eyes perfectly conveying the air of someone who has been to hell and back. As the weight of Kremer’s mission presses down on him, you can practically see his spirit begin to buckle due to Matthes’ performance.
Matching him, stride for stride, is August Diehl as Gebhardt. In the Q&A session following the film, Schlöndorff said he wanted to portray evil, not as something repulsive, but as something incredibly seductive and even reasonable. As Gebhardt, Diehl does just that, appearing appropriately slimy, charismatic, charming, and manipulative as necessary. However, to the movie’s credit, we see glimpses of Gebhardt’s humanity, which makes him far more realistic and complex than some mere villain.
We learn that he’s a family man who deeply loves his wife, and who holds deep (if misguided) convictions about the rightness of his cause. He’s also under intense pressure from his superiors to get Kremer’s cooperation (or else), and there are several small scenes where we witness Kremer’s growing desperation to remain in control. Thanks to Diehl’s performance, we see a man who, despite being part of a terrible evil, is not too dissimilar from any of us. A sobering thought, to be sure.
Adding additional weight to this movie is the fact that it’s based on a true story, on the accounts of a priest who spent time in Dachau. Obviously, some dramatic license was taken — Schlöndorff admitted to as much during the Q&A session — but it nevertheless remains a powerful tale, and ends with one of the most indelible images I saw in the entire festival.
I’ve referred to the Q&A session that followed the screening several times, so just a quick note on that. I attended several such sessions throughout the course of the festival, and the one following The Ninth Day was easily the best and most rewarding. Schlöndorff was there, and spent a great deal of time explaining his reasons for making the film, how he approached the material, the film’s wonderful score, etc. A number of good questions were asked, including a potentially thorny one about Schlöndorff’s personal stance on the Church’s actions during World War II. Schlöndorff answered the question quite thoughtfully, and even related a story from his childhood about the Church’s role in his development as a filmmaker.
All in all, one of the most rewarding films I saw during this year’s festival, and one I definitely look forward to seeing again and discussing with friends.