The Ninth Day

May, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Volker Schlöndorff

Starring:Ulrich Matthes, August Diehl, and Bibiana Beglau

There have been so many films set in German concentration camps during World War II that it seems impossible to imagine one which could bring a fresh perspective or a tell a completely different story. Yet German director Volker Schlondorff, (Circle of Deceit, The Handmaid's Tale) who specializes in what one critic calls "moral thrillers", brings to the screen this quietly impressive study of ethical torment drawn from the diaries of Rev. Jean Bernard, a Catholic priest imprisoned in one of the Nazis' most infamous death camps. Because Bernard's actual experiences were altered by screenwriters Eberhard Gorner and Andreas Pfluger for dramatic effect, the cleric's real name was not used in the production, but the agonizing choices he was forced to make are historically accurate. 

Day opens with a shot of shaved male heads, seen from above, being herded down a narrow corridor, like cattle in a slaughter-house chute. The place is Dachau, the time late 1942. Fr. Henri Kremer, (Ulrich Matthes) has been incarcerated for his active support of the French underground; now he's assigned to hard labor and a deliberately uncomfortable barrack which houses fellow priests who've run afoul of the Third Reich. Despite a plea for special treatment from Pope Pius XII for these clerics, the film's early scenes pulsate with vicious brutality, underscoring the hopeless conditions under which even the camp's most protected inmates were forced to live.

 Kremer, son of a prominent Luxembourg family, suddenly receives an unexpected furlough, ostensibly to visit his family in the wake of his mother's death. When he arrives home however, he discovers the real reason for his temporary release when SS officer Gebhardt (August Diehl) presents him with an terrifying choice; convince his bishop to formally endorse an alliance between the Church in Luxembourg and the Nazi government, (which will bring the immediate release of his fellow priests) or place the rest of his family at risk when he's returned to Dachau. He's given nine days to deliver the episcopal endorsement.

This is the second historical character from the Nazi era Matthes has played recently; in Downfall, the actor rendered Joseph Goebbel's pathological fanaticism all the more frightening because it was accompanied by such obvious affection for the wife and 4 children he murdered so they wouldn't be forced to live in a world without Aldolph Hitler. Here, his eyes glowing like charcoal briquettes in the middle of a darkly ravaged face, Matthes manages, with staccato outbursts, to ridicule his German masters while simultaneously castigating his superiors--including the Almighty. Kremer's sister and brother urge him to escape to Switzerland, arguing that reprisals, if there are to be any, are not his responsibility; his brother-in-law wants him to flee for the simple reason that he's less threatening somewhere else than under the family's roof. Kremer seeks an audience with his bishop but instead finds himself dealing with the latter's secretary, a fellow priest who urges Kremer to try and work a deal with Gebhardt which will by-pass the bishop by allowing the influential Kremer to directly urge his fellow priests to capitulate.

As the imperious SS man charged with cracking the reluctant priest's will to resist, August Diehl has the best role of his still budding career; his Gebhardt is, a family man and ex- Catholic seminarian, as Kremer discovers when the sophisticated young officer suggests that, under dire circumstances, betraying one's principals in the short run is often the only way to succeed in finally attaining them. The verbal jousting between distraught priest and his smug handler recalls the Gospels of Luke and Matthew; Christ in the desert, weakened by a 40 day fast and tempted to abandon his ultimate mission by a voice of such apparent reason…

Kremer doles out his allotted time parsimoniously, taking his meals in his room, allowing his sister to mend his tattered clothes and supply new shoes, walking slowly to his required sessions with Gebhardt and patiently waiting for an audience with the bishop whose advice the harried priest desperately seeks. When the bishop finally grants an interview however, Kremer is horrified to discover that his superior refuses to budge; he won't abandon his own use of silence to signal resistance to the Nazis, but he won't join Kremer in criticizing the Pope for his silence in the matter either. Kemer's corrosive despair deepens on the ninth day when Gebhardt demands a written and signed acceptance of the Nazi's terms; Kremer's response, and the events that flow from it, are covered in a written coda which scrolls across the screen just before the final credits.

Kremer's moral torment is obviously difficult to visualize, much less comprehend and the director doesn't try to overcompensate; his understated style is reminiscent of Vera Drake and that film's use of uncomplicated scenes, straightforward cinematography and limited use of tracking shots. The exchanges between Kremer and his tormentor and Kremer and the bishop's secretary emerge as haunting theological chess matches, providing a sense of the priest's anger and ethical paralysis while also offering the audience an opportunity for uneasy self-reflection.  As mute close-ups of Matthes' sepulchral face pointedly suggest, no one is unabashedly stalwart in the face of pure evil.

With its spare economy of presentation, The Ninth Day manages, in the brief span of 90 minutes, to explore the limits of what humans owe one another. This small film answers that large question profoundly .   

         

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