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Arts & Culture Catholic Church and Holocaust Latest Topic for European Filmmaker

February 14, 2003
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Director Constantin Costa-Gavras’ latest film may be about history, but he made it with an eye to the present.

“Amen,” which opened recently in New York and Los Angeles and Florida, is a damning portrait of the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to speak out against the Holocaust.

The film is based on Rolf Hochhuth’s 1962 play “The Deputy” — which in turn is based on the true story of a German SS officer, Kurt Gerstein, and a young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Catholic Church to crusade against the murder of Jews.

“Several movies have been made about the victims. I wanted to make a movie about the other side,” he told JTA recently while visiting New York for the film’s U.S. premiere.

The church, he says, “had the ability to give direction to a majority of the people. And they didn’t do it,” he said.

A native of Greece who currently lives in France, Costa-Gavras is tall with a chiseled face.

Wearing a black shirt, a grey blazer and red socks during the interview, he looked like he was pulled out of central casting for the role of the European intellectual.

And it’s Europe that he tries to reach with “Amen” — not only World War II-era Europe, but the present as well.

He’s concerned about the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, which he attributes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and with anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

The anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment that France has been grappling with for the better part of a decade crested last spring, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made the runoff in the country’s elections for a new prime minister.

“It’s as if all the Muslims were bin Ladens,” he says of many Europeans’ attitudes.

The unwillingness to stand up for those who are different is a theme he explores in “Amen.” In the film, church officials, particularly the controversial pope, Pius XII, are portrayed as being too concerned with protecting their own turf — and their own people — to hear the news that Jews are being gassed by the tens of thousands. For Costa-Gavras, the moral of not standing up for those who are different is one he doesn’t want repeated.

In Europe, at least, the exact nature of those lessons are still meeting with some resistance.

When “Amen” opened in Germany, Catholic bishops threatened to sue over posters that featured the cross and swastika merged, blood-red against a black background.

The controversy is nothing new to Costa-Gavras. He won a foreign film Oscar in 1969 for “Z,” a thriller, based on actual incidents in 1960s Greece, about a liberal opposition leader who is killed in a suspicious accident.

And his 1982 film, “Missing,” centers around the disappearance of an American expatriate during political turmoil in Latin America.

But he doesn’t seem to mind.

As he puts it, “It’s better to explore the world. And as far as I can do it, I will.”

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