CINEMA: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
'The Ninth Day' - Priests who suffered under Hitler
, August 27, 2005
Michael E. Daniel
reviews The Ninth Day
.One of the highlights of the recent Melbourne International Film Festival (July 20 - August 7) was The Ninth Day (2004) by noted German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum).
Although in recent years a lot of excellent movies have been released dealing with Nazi concentration camps, The Ninth Day
explores the Nazi treatment of Catholic clergy who opposed its régime.
Commencing in the depth of winter, 1942, when the Nazi régime was at its zenith and showed no obvious signs of crumbling, the story confronts the audience with the horrors of life for prisoners in the clergy block of Dachau.
The prisoners are fed minimal food, are bashed by the sadistic guards and witness one of their number being killed crucifixion-style.
Despite the brutalities, they do what they can to retain their faith, such as singing the Pange Lingua
during the crucifixion and celebrating clandestine Masses.
From the opening scenes, the film focuses on one such Dachau inmate, the young Abbé Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes, The Downfall
) of the diocese of Luxembourg.
Although largely fictionalised, it is based loosely upon the life of Revd Jean Bernard, who was arrested in 1941 because of his vocal opposition to the Nazi régime.
Ordered to report to an officer of the German SS, Kremer expects the worst, only to be given his clerical attire and transit papers to return to his native Luxembourg.
Upon his arrival home, and on reporting to the Gestapo, he discovers that he has been given nine days' leave and must return to Dachau if he is unable to convince his bishop, known for his opposition to the Nazi régime, to sign a statement publicly endorsing the Nazis.
Hitherto, the bishop had rung church bells as a symbol of defiance against the occupiers, had refused to leave his residence and had refused to receive Nazi officials as he was "too ill".
It is also made clear to Kremer that, should he attempt to escape, priests from Luxembourg, as well as his family, would be severely punished.
The film draws its power from the agony of conscience that Kremer now faces.
On the one side, he is urged by his family to escape, even to the point where his brother offers him a lift home, only to start to drive him to Paris. Similarly, the bishop's secretary, who is prepared to take a more accommodating attitude towards the Nazis, extols the benefits of co-operation.
However, the main psychological and spiritual battle Kremer faces is with Untersturmführer Gebhardt (August Diehl), the SS officer charged with securing the bishop's endorsement, with the veiled threat of being transferred to duties in Eastern camps (i.e., death camps), should he fail to secure his objective.
Early in the film, the SS in dialogue argue that they did not view the actions of the Vatican as a threat; however, they were worried about a proposed statement by Pius XII on the Jews.
Gebhardt, a former seminarian, uses his intimate knowledge of theology in his attempt to persuade Kremer, arguing, for example, that to be a Judas is an honourable necessity, since Judas' betrayal of Christ was an essential element in the salvation story.
Intertwined with these subtle arguments is Kremer's own remorse at what he believes to have been his betrayal of a fellow prisoner. Desperate for water in the summer heat, Kremer did not reveal to this prisoner, who was found dead on the electric fence soon afterwards, a hidden source of water.
One of the climactic moments of the film is when Kremer finally meets his bishop.
Kremer declares to him in desperation that although his faith has never been in doubt, he has questioned the silence of Pope Pius XII.
The bishop then reveals to him the true reason for Pius' silence and, at this point, the cinema audience sat in stunned silence.
When the archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands publicly protested against the Nazi mistreatment of Jews, the Nazis retaliated by rounding up 40,000 Christians of Jewish origin.
If Pius were to make such a statement, it could have resulted in the deaths of a further 300,000–400,000 people.The Ninth Day
is an extremely moving exploration of the ethical dilemmas that Catholics faced under the Nazi régime.
Unlike many contemporary films that present the Church in a negative light, it explores the Church's response to Nazism with sensitivity.
The capacity crowd in the large auditorium in which the film was screened, and the extremely positive comments that were uttered upon departure by patrons, speak for themselves.
Perhaps the only criticisms one could offer were the defects in some of the liturgical scenes.