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.