Priest Makes Deal With Devil in ‘Day’


Volker Schlaandorff, born in Germany in the fateful year 1939, has explored his country’s dark history in such films as “The Tin Drum,” “The Ogre” and “The Legend of Rita.”

Now he returns to the Nazi era in the intense “The Ninth Day,” a film mature enough to view the Shoah from a different perspective and to confront the viewer with complex questions of morality, religion and character.

Based broadly on the wartime diary of a Luxembourg priest, the Rev. Jean Bernard, the films opens in a wintry Dachau, where three special barracks have been set aside for clergymen. The vast majority of the occupants are Catholic, but there also are some Protestant and Greek Orthodox ministers who have refused to toe the Nazi line.

They are treated better than Jewish prisoners, but life is hellish enough for the Luxembourg priest, here called Abbé Henri Kremer. When he is called out of his barrack, Kremer expects torture or hanging, but instead the SS has a deal for him.

He will be given a nine-day leave to return to Luxembourg and meet his sister and brother. His assignment is to turn the resolutely anti-Nazi bishop of the country — to persuade him and his people to join the German “crusade” against godless Bolshevism.

If Kremer succeeds, he will be a free man. If he tries to flee, all his fellow priests in Dachau will be executed.

Arriving home, Kremer meets his handler and interrogator, SS Untersturmfuehrer Gebhardt. It is the tension between the two men that gives the film its spine and complexity.

In looks, the two men could hardly be more different. Gebhardt (August Diehl) is smooth, almost baby-faced, dressed for the occasion in well-cut civilian clothes.

Kremer (Ulrich Matthes) wears frayed clerical garb and his face is unforgettable. Hawk-nosed, his gaunt cheeks stretched like straight planes, and the most arresting features are the burning, haunted eyes of a prophet or madman.

But intellectually, if not morally, the protagonists speak the same language. Gebhardt is a former seminary student, who, a few days before his ordination, decided to exchange the black habit of the priest for the black uniform of the SS.

Gebhardt opens the sparring match by observing that he is fascinated by the persona of Judas, “a revolutionary Jew and the most pious of the disciples.”

Had Judas failed to betray Jesus, there would have been no crucifixion and, therefore, no salvation for mankind. Ergo, the SS officer argues by implication, it is the priest’s duty to betray his own and the bishop’s convictions for the salvation of Christendom and victory over satanic Bolshevism.

“Jesus showed us how to defeat the Jew within us,” Gebhardt proposes at another point, leading to Kremer’s only sinful outburst of anger.

The handler also knows how to play on the priest’s sense of personal guilt for not having shared a few precious drops of water with a feeble fellow inmate — an incident actually taken from Primo Levi’s concentration camp memoirs.

The film touches only tangentially on the Vatican’s role during World War II, but “The Ninth Day” is not “The Deputy,” in which a defiant priest denounces the pope’s passiveness in the face of the extermination of the Jews.

“It was inconceivable at the time that a priest like Kremer would criticize the pope,” Schlondorff said during an interview.

In the few direct references to the Vatican, the standard line is that criticism of the Nazi rule by the pope would only have worsened the lot of the victims.

“The Ninth Day” is a fascinating interplay of character and ideas, for the highest of stakes, but it is no Saturday night date movie.

Kremer, the honorable fanatic, allows himself only two faint smiles during the film’s 90 minutes.

One comes during a brief snowball fight with his sister. The other is the movie’s final shot, when the priest, returning to Dachau, smuggles a salami sausage past the Nazi guards and shares it with fellow prisoners.

And what about the actual history of Luxembourg that is referenced by the movie’s narrative?

Judged by the standard of the time, Luxembourg’s role was not ignoble, according to historical sources and Schlondorff’s own research.

True, the tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, population 468,000, hardly rates any mention in the history of World War II and the Holocaust.

However, the duchy’s people and church overwhelmingly opposed Hitler’s 1942 incorporation of Luxembourg into the Reich and the imposition of the Nuremberg race laws.

Many of the country’s 3,500 Jews fled to unoccupied France, only to be caught later by the Nazis. It is estimated that in all, 1,000-2,000 Luxembourg Jews were murdered.

Before the war, practically all Luxembourgers spoke German, French and a local dialect. So strong is the revulsion against the Nazi regime even now, said Schlondorff, that German is no longer heard.

“The Ninth Day” opens July 8 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills (www.laemmle.com) and at University Town Center in Irvine.

 

The Mossad Spy Who Turned Bad


Graham Greene and John Le Carré have been there before: A shadowy source with access to the highest reaches of an enemy regime. A vain, furtive secret service handler with a chip on his shoulder, who insists that the informant will speak to no one but him. A steady flow of alarming exclusive reports, plausible but inherently uncheckable. An intelligence community more concerned with protecting its turf than investigating all the way when suspicions were first aroused.

This time, though, it was not Greene’s Havana vacuum cleaner salesman or Le Carré’s tailor of Panama who fed self-serving lies to his masters; it was the handler himself. And his phony warnings, over two decades, twice nearly brought Israel to war. Most recently, in autumn 1996, he predicted a Syrian attack. Military intelligence disagreed. Fortunately, its assessment prevailed, and the Mossad began looking again at its operator.

Yehuda Gil, a 63-year-old Mossad veteran, has finally confessed to his duplicity. He will be put on trial later this month, charged with supplying false information, and perhaps also with espionage and provoking an attack on Israel — although legal experts recognize that it will be harder to make the last two stick.

After first denying all, Gil led investigators to his house in Gadera, south of Tel Aviv, where they found a cache of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars that he had neglected to pass on to his source, reportedly the relative of a Syrian general. The investigators are still trying to trace another $150,000.

The story, revealed in a series of scoops by Ha’aretz’s military editor, Ze’ev Schiff, deals a debilitating blow to the Mossad’s reputation, already dented by its botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan in September.

Israel’s renowned external-security service has had its failures before. The successes, its admirers like to say, are the ones you never hear about. Maybe, but the Gil affair is particularly destructive because it strikes at the credibility of Mossad information, its stock in trade in essential dealings with the Central Intelligence Agency and other friendly services.

“The Mossad’s mission,” the military affairs commentator Ron Ben-Yishai wrote in Yediot Aharonot, “is to warn about the possibility of war, to relay to the government information which can be used as Israel appeals to other countries for assistance, and to collate information which the Mossad can exchange for information in the possession of other intelligence agencies. The data supplied by the Mossad must be reliable. Now, it will be much more difficult for the Mossad to persuade other governments and intelligence agencies that it is, in fact, the best agency in the world for collecting information from human sources.”

Insiders acknowledge the damage but contend that it is neither permanent nor irreversible. “Our ratio of failures to successes over half a century is negligible,” Reuven Merhav, a former senior Mossad officer, told me. “The Gil affair damages an image which has already been greatly tarnished in recent months, but steps have been taken to neutralize the damage.”

Foreign professionals, he maintained, understood that such debacles could happen, to them as easily as to the Mossad. “Show me one serious intelligence agency, including the CIA, which has not suffered such a failure,” he said. “If you can find even one, we’ll send them straight to sing with the angels in heaven. None of us are angels.”

The question remains: What made Yehuda Gil, whose patriotism is not disputed, do it? His lawyers say that it was not the money, though he enjoyed the high living of a lightly supervised field officer. Politicians as diverse as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor opposition leader Ehud Barak deny that he was ideologically motivated, though he worked after retirement for retired Gen. Rehavam Ze’evy’s ultranationalist Moledet party.

The more plausible theory is a wounded self-importance. Gil immigrated to Israel in his youth from Libya. He speaks fluent Arabic and several European languages. By all accounts, his trade craft was superb. The Mossad is said to have used him to lecture its new recruits on the art of lying.

“Despite the disturbing reports,” one of his former Mossad colleagues, Gad Shomron, wrote in Ma’ariv, “I must confess I admired him. Yehuda Gil came up with the founding generation of Mossad field workers. Tales about his exploits were part of the heritage they tried to bequeath us. He was a professional, courageous and inventive, of the rare breed which helped the Mossad to acquire its reputation as the world’s leading intelligence organization in dealing with human sources….

“Yehuda Gil is one of those people whom the Creator blessed with the ability to pinpoint within a few seconds his interlocutor’s weakness. This talent, along with his high intelligence, diligence, amazing skills with language and his impressive patience, caused him to be promoted quickly.”

Not, it seems, quickly enough or as high as he thought his due. “Gil became embittered,” Shomron testified. “He believed the Mossad top brass did not sufficiently appreciate his talents.” So, according to this interpretation, he embellished his reports to remind them how good he was — and, after retiring in the early 1990s, he forced his way back by claiming that his Syrian source had come back on stream but would talk to nobody else. Yehuda Gil missed the action.

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