Movie. Amen, 2002.

Posted by T on May 19, 2007
By Title, Movies

Another holocaust film, this one a heavily fictionalized story of SS officer Kurt Gerstein. Gerstein is portrayed as an officer in charge of pesticides and hygiene, who in 1942 gets pressed into service supporting human extermination facilities in Poland. He is horrified, and tries to slow down the system by various artifices, even while remaining at his post for the entire three years of the war that remained. He tries to notify the world via a discussion with a Swedish bureaucrat that he bumps into on a train ride, and also by visiting Roman Catholic and Protestant officials.

We don’t hear again from the bureaucrat; most of the movie is unmasking the double-mindedness of religious officials who express concern about what is happening but aren’t willing to do anything about it.

There are two ways to interpret the movie, depending on whether you take it to be about (abstract) humanity or (concrete) history. (1) If humanity, then the thesis is something like an exposé of universal selfishness. However, this is not supported by anything plausible in the movie, unless the historical facts are generally true. (2) The real thesis, therefore, seems to be that “everyone” knew the Holocaust was taking place, and could have done something about it; they are therefore complicit in the guilt thereof.

But the encounters with church officials, which take up the bulk of the story, are all fictional; so it raises the question, whether the thesis of the movie has any right to be regarded as compelling. The historical Gerstein himself is a particularly weak figure to build such a case around.

After the war, he surrendered to the French and allegedly wrote a confession, in French, shortly before dying under suspicious circumstances in prison. The confession itself includes several patent absurdities. For example, the number of victims crammed into the chamber that he witnessed would come to several people per square foot. He mentions a heap of shoes 75 feet high, which is also inconceivable (how would you get the next pair of shoes up there? and for what purpose?). One must reflect on what this does to his credibility as a witness. There seem to be several possibilities:

  1. He intentionally lied because of the political situation, but intended it to be recognized as such with the obvious boners.
  2. He was mentally hallucinatory, or perhaps mingled nightmare fantasies with the outline of genuine memories.
  3. The confession was itself forged.

(1) is the most attractive to rescue Gerstein’s integrity as a person, but seems inconsistent with certain facts of his life.

(2) has some plausibility in view of the mental conflict that Gerstein had set up even several years before the war by simultaneously dissenting from the Party line, yet persistently trying to join the Party, which was reluctant to take him. Was he a self-appointed spy from the beginning? Coupled with the crazy details that accompanied his stories, can we say that his mind produced images in wish-fulfillment? Psychology has amply studied how expectation and fear can influence perception.

(3) has the circumstantial support of his apparent “suicide” just days after it was written. According to the movie, he had a beautiful wife and three young children; if he stayed in the SS for three years though opposed to it, why would he abandon his little family after it was finally over, when moreover he would finally have the chance to make his case to the world?

His death obviously removed him from the possibility of cross-examination.

I am not an historian by profession, and I suppose that the strange and impossible testimony of Gerstein is a negligible part of the evidential basis for the Holocaust. But for that reason, it is odd that his story would be the chosen vehicle for a movie having the purpose that it does.

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