Amen.;In the Mirror of Maya Deren

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


The latest in a wave of Holocaust dramas, Costa-Gavras’ Amen., offers the director’s usual mix of propulsive narrative storytelling, moral outrage and a sense of rightness that seems, in the end, a bit too easily claimed. Based on the true story of Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), an SS officer and scientist who tried to blow the whistle on Nazi genocide, it is ultimately not too concerned with why genocide happens or what it feels like to survive it (the subject of most Holocaust dramas, from Schindler’s List through the current The Pianist and Max). It’s more interested in examining the mechanisms by which supposedly civilized societies deny (or avoid confronting) genocide–the conspiracy of silence that seems to afflict the whole world from time to time. But it doesn’t examine these mechanisms as deeply as it should, and in giving us a hero who’s not really part of the machine, it uncouples righteousness from its eternal twin, doubt.

Costa-Gavras is one of the few populist filmmakers specializing in muckraking political thrillers. Over the decades, in films as diverse as Z, Missing, Betrayed and The Music Box, he’s tackled every horrendously powerful subject you can name, from totalitarianism to racism. But he always comes back to the idea of complicity; Costa-Gavras’ heroes tend to be righteous, innocent, justifiably furious people who confront the powerful with evidence of evil and are met with a shrug or a slap. The plots of his movies often revolve (perhaps a shade predictably) around the choreography of selfish denial. The director’s 80s films were so clearly focused on this one idea that they started to seem interchangeable, like Costa-Gavras Mad Libs: I’m afraid my (boyfriend/father/government) is a (white supremacist/ex-Nazi/supporter of fascism)… I was wrong, what a relief… Wait a minute, I was right!

If this is an unfair or exaggerated characterization of Costa-Gavras, I doubt Amen. will refute it. From its opening section, which depicts the Nazi extermination of socially "unproductive" citizens, through its hero’s odyssey to force the world to acknowledge the Nazis’ genocidal use of Zyklon B (a gas Gerstein invented to disinfect soldiers’ uniforms), the viewer is torn between gratitude for the movie’s harsh historical detail and impatience with its hero, a smart, charming lug who represents all that’s good in humanity. (Oskar Schindler was a guy who did the right thing while pretending to do the wrong thing, and who could not have known how to do right if he hadn’t spent so much of his life doing wrong–a far more interesting hero, I’d say.)

Gerstein, a devout Protestant, takes his case to his own church and is told to put a sock in it, then refocuses his outrage on the Vatican, which barely raised a peep about the Nazis because of their track record of destroying Communists. He allies himself with a young, principled Jesuit priest (played by actor/director Matthieu Kassovitz) who just happens to have family connections to the Pope himself. But, alas, their efforts to wake up the church (and the world) are doomed. Faced with the choice between doing right and covering one’s own ass, religious leaders (and leaders generally) tend to go with Option B.

Costa-Gavras, who wrote the script with J.C. Grumberg, has constructed a tense series of confrontations between Gerstein and various friends and foes, but they tend to illustrate the same notion over and over (see above). And Armand Amar’s churning symphonic music (it sounds like Bernard Herrmann in Cary Grant-clinging-to-a-cliff mode) seems designed to make us forget that the movie is comprised mainly of repetitious scenes in which powerful men discuss important things in big offices.

The director assures us that, despite his uniform and SS rank, Gerstein isn’t really a Nazi. An early scene where Gerstein and his family pay their respects to a dead cousin highlights a moment where Gerstein restrains his young son from giving a Nazi salute. In the same scene, Gerstein responds to a mourner’s inquiry about why he’s not in uniform by snapping, "You don’t bid farewell to the dead in your work clothes." Maybe all these details are true, but they feel false, like embellishments meant to make the viewer more comfy. "You must warn the Americans," he tells a Swedish ambassador, handing over incriminating documents. "Get them to drop leaflets on Germany… Once they are informed, the Germans will rise against it." Or not.

The movie is worth seeing for its drum-tight construction (Costa-Gavras knows how to keep a plot humming along), and for its forceful and complex lead performance. Tukur, a veteran German character actor who starred in The White Rose, and had a small part as the disembodied oracle of Soderbergh’s Solaris, is that rare combination of movie star and actor–Ed Harris via the Rhineland. By the rules of movie spectatorship, Gerstein’s fanatical moral consistency should be boring, but Tukur’s emotional transparency ensures that every good word and deed seems to come from a fragile, human place. If Amen. had risen to the level of his performance, it might have been amazing–an answer to a political movie fan’s prayers.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren
Directed by Martina Kudlacek

Maya Deren is a familiar name to anyone who ever took a film-history class, but the depth of the experimental filmmaker’s craft has never been given the feature-length examination it deserves. In the many shorts she directed or codirected (including Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land), she perfected the idea of film-as-blank-slate, juxtaposing images that had deep, primal, yet amorphous meanings (water, land, stairs, foliage, reflective surfaces). Her elliptical editing, slow pace and dreamlike moods encouraged the viewer to create a personal narrative–to think about (and think beyond) one’s own experience.

In some ways, Deren’s style seems a woman’s principled response to Sergei Eisenstein’s extremely male theory of montage, which aimed to put unrelated images together in a way that said something specific, preferably political, in order to foster action right now. In the Mirror of Maya Deren, which opens Friday at Anthology Film Archives, delves deep into this idea, and the result is a satisfying documentary about a highly eccentric, defiantly individual artist–one that insists, first and foremost, on her identity as a woman.

Jonas Mekas, filmmaker and unofficial saint of cinema, opens the movie by holding up metal cans containing Deren’s work and likening them to the Holy Grail. The film goes on to explain how her Russian-Jewish roots, feminist theories, choreography experience and failed attempts at poetry all came together onscreen. The most insightful quote comes from an old radio interview with Deren, in which she highlights the difference between commercial narrative filmmaking (which is very much in the moment, and thus very male) and her films, which insist on the elasticity of both personal perception and time itself. She insists she could not have made the sorts of films she made if she hadn’t been a woman; she says that women, unlike men, are biologically required to think outside the moment at all times, and to accept waiting as a fact of life. And she admits that in their abstractions, her films owe more to poetry and dance than to any other art forms. "In film," she said, "I can make the world dance."

In the Mirror of Maya Deren, through Fri., Jan. 31, at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. (2nd St.), 505-5181.

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