For German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, the appeal of making The Ninth Day, a fact-inspired film about a priest in a Nazi concentration camp who is briefly released, goes back over five decades to Schlöndorff’s film-club days at a Jesuit boarding school, where he first encountered Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc.
What hooked Schlöndorff on making The Ninth Day, he says, "was the moment when they tell [the priest], ‘You’re released.’ Because he has now himself a decision to make about his life and his death. So far it had been the people in the camp to decide about whether he lives or dies, and all of a sudden this decision was in his own hands." Schlöndorff laughs self-deprecatingly. "I have a hard time making any decision whatsoever… I’ve always been fascinated with how certain people have such strong convictions that they don’t seem to ever hesitate about what has to be done.
"I first experienced that when at age seventeen, I guess, at the Jesuit boarding school in France where I was a pupil, and we had a film club, and I saw the first silent movie I’d ever seen, which was The Passion of Joan of Arc. And it wasn’t so much the filmmaking that impressed me as… All she had to do was say one word, and she could walk free. And instead of that, she preferred instead to burn at the stake. And I wondered then, how can anyone have such a strong conviction about what he should do? And fifty years later, in reading this screenplay, I kind of remembered that question when I still didn’t have the answer."
Schlöndorff adds that he also hoped to "celebrate the beauty of such a… I guess you call it faith, or belief, which is nothing that is fanatic. These are not people who want to be martyrs. This priest is totally unassuming. So I said, this is way beyond the concentration camps, this is way beyond politics, between Vatican and National Socialists and so on — this is a basic human question. And that’s why I did it."
Does he feel that he got any closer to an answer while making the film? "Yeah, you know, definitely I did, but how can I express it? It is not by working through a checklist that you come to a decision. It is neither by asking your friends, family, brother, sister, your bishop if you have one, or whomso else — you can only find it within yourself. Because within yourself the decision is already made, through your character. But you just have to find it there.
"I don’t want to say we are not even free to make a decision, because we are always free to make a decision, to do an act, or to cancel it. But somehow it is within every individual’s nature which way he has to go and which way he has to go. And he should always go the way that is in his nature."
Despite his difficulty with decisions, Schlöndorff credits his studies with the Jesuits with helping him to make one decision: to become a filmmaker. "I was lucky. I was sent — as a Protestant, by the way — for two months to France to a Jesuit boarding school to learn French, and I liked it so much that I stayed for three years and finished my schooling there. One of the attractions was the film club… These Jesuits told me that you don’t have to become a lawyer or a doctor, or an architect, or whatever your middle class background seems to tell you — now this was in the fifties, mind you, and filmmaking was not exactly considered a very valuable activity. But they said, it’s fabulous, if you care so much for movies, why don’t you become a filmmaker? So that’s one part of the training, and why I was grateful.
"I also really liked the clarity of argument with them, and the unassuming way of always trying to find out the truth. They totally changed my life for the better. I discovered that education can be a wonderful thing." There’s that self-deprecating laugh again. "I still have this kind of educational streak in me in making movies… movies that lose money."
Some critics of The Ninth Day have expressed disappointment that the dialogues between the priest and the Nazi aren’t as engaging as they could be. Why doesn’t the priest argue more? Schlöndorff says this was a deliberate decision.
"That is because I had good Jesuit training. And I was taught that a debate is only possible between free individuals. And in this case the one individual, namely the officer, has the power over life and death. And the other one is nothing but a prisoner in front of him. Even though he doesn’t wear chains at the moment.
"So this can never be a debate, and I pushed it that in the first sequence. I cut out all the lines that the priest would say, and didn’t have him say anything, because his attitude must be, ‘I don’t talk with this guy.’ As it goes on he gives certain answers, but he never enters entirely into debate. And then he’s drawn into it, and he gets very angry at one point — angry at himself — because he did enter into debate, and he says, I’m not here to discuss my faith with you.
"So it’s interesting to have a debate in which one side doesn’t want to debate. It adds to the suspense. It’s good drama. But I think it is the right attitude for the priest to have, because this debate in fact is a temptation. This is a situation of temptation, and the other one is trying to tempt him by offering his life and offering him freedom for his family, and for other prisoners he could bring back… but he also offering him all kinds of tempting him with all kinds of arguments, like the attitude of Judas and we have to think about the world and not about the hereafter and there’s so much you can achieve in this world if you go along with us.
"So all the arguments are in fact part of the temptation. So I guess the only way to react in a situation like that is you would have to close your ears. Because otherwise, you might listen to the devil. And of course this is the devil incarnate, right in front of him.
"And the priest knows he is not the strongest of all persons. Once, he failed in the story… So he knows that he’s weak, and he may not have the strength to do the right thing this time as well. So he shouldn’t debate."
Has Schlöndorff’s "good Jesuit training" influenced his own religious views? Schlöndorff acknowledges that Catholicism has had a lasting impact on his life, though he never made the decision to convert. "This is very personal… I had my daughter baptized Catholic, I promised to give her a Catholic education — with the communion and all that. I didn’t personally convert to anything… I believe in spirituality, and I think that in our western world the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion seems to make more sense than the Protestant. But that would be a long, long argument. But that is something I came to understand."
As a filmmaker, Schlöndorff is no stranger to controversy. Did he expect criticism over his film’s inclusion of positive depictions of priests and bishops resisting the Nazi regime, and even a few lines of dialogue defending the "silence" of Pope Pius XII?
Schlöndorff chooses his words carefully. "I didn’t expect any controversy to arrive from this, because whatever part there is about what could the pope have done about the priests in the camps, or what could the pope have done in terms of the Holocaust — I always felt that that is a different chapter. The failings of the Church as an institution, if there were any — first of all that has been dealt with, and secondly I’m not interested in an institution. I’m interested in an individual.
"Right or wrongly, there’s been so much criticism about the attitude of the Church, and one shouldn’t forget that there were thousands of individuals who behaved in the most decent way one could wish for. And I literally wanted to, how do you say, build a monument to those unknown and unsung heroes. So I don’t think there can be any controversy about it."
Schlöndorff goes on to explain the historical incident in the Netherlands cited in the film as historical context for Pope Pius’s muted approach. "What happened there is that the Nazis first arrested and deported the [Dutch] Jews of, how I should say, Mosaic faith. The [Dutch bishops] protested that, upon which the Nazis arrested and deported as well the [Dutch] Jews who had converted to any Christian church. So that is one of the arguments that is always brought forward why he [Pius XII] didn’t interfere more forcefully.
"But as I say for me this is a footnote in this movie, and is a major topic for other films or books or whatnot. But it was not my intention even to go into this debate, because I think that the story of our priest would have gotten lost."
Oddly, though, the film depicts its protagonist feeling disappointment at Pius XII for his silence, whereas the historical priest the story is based on knew first-hand the consequences from Nazi retaliation every time the Vatican protested against the Nazi regime. Why did Schlöndorff make this decision?
"I think that if you were in the camp, and you wonder how come nobody helps you, disappointment is understandable, and I thought he had to express it. Of course he is somewhat disappointed in the sense that where he is, in the camp, he feels abandoned by everybody. I mean, he goes so far to say that there is no God, which is an impossible thing to say — I knew that and I had him say it anyhow… So he is aware that the pope is out there and can’t do anything for him."
The Ninth Day comes right on the heels of another German Nazi-themed film, Downfall, in which Schlöndorff’s star, Ulrich Matthes, plays the diametrically opposite role of Nazi propagandist Joseph Göebbels. Which role did he play first, and what was this like for him?
"We were shooting more or less simultaneously. [Matthes’s] part [in Downfall] was finished [while we were shooting], but then they were still doing all the war scenes and stuff, what happened on the surface, not what happened in the bunker, but all the streetfighting and stuff. They were still shooting that…
"So [to play the priest] was to exorcise, to get the Göebbels out of his system. He said it was much harder and more painful to do the Göebbels, and it was a great relief to do the priest after that."
Schlöndorff also says that the convergence with Downfall affected creative decisions on his part. "When we started our picture, I knew that the one was going to happen and was in the works And knowing the other guy’s approach to the story, I kind of consciously said, well, let’s do the exact opposite. Let’s be as non-melodramatic as possible, not even dramatize certain things. Let’s be small-scale, let’s be very close to the individual. Let’s not have a single Nazi flag anywhere in the picture."
Considering the sheer number of Nazi-themed films that the intervening decades have produced, what did Schlöndorff hope to contribute with this film?
"To start with I didn’t even want to read it, because I said, oh no, not another one. But then as soon as I started reading it, from the first page, it was so different from anything I had ever seen. The description of the camp, it was so specific, all written like in closeups. Later I would learn that was because it was from his diary. He had been extremely factual, you know, he’d been writing his diary like Hemingway used to write, you know: write only what you can see. In the very factual, matter-of-fact way, as if he were describing a landscape — whatever the horror was, he never went into turning into literature. And that I thought was very interesting, that it was broken down into a lot of inserts and closeups…
"For me as a director, the real achievement is the scenes in the camp. Because I thought that couldn’t be done, I always had refused to do anything projects that camps or the Holocaust was involved. It’s beyond drama, it’s beyond the reach of fiction. And that with the help of his diary and with the precision of his diary, we managed to give a feeling of that. I think that’s what I’m most content with."
Given that the film is based on a real incident, why did they decide to give the real-life priest a fictional name? "For a very simple reason. In his diary the debates with the Nazi officer are only mentioned, that they tried to turn me around, and I refused and got back. It’s only half a page, these whole nine days he was on leave, it’s only have a page in his diary, He speaks about the camp before, about the camp afterwards.
"So we felt that in this half page was the true drama. The rest is a very great documentary about the camp, but the drama is in this decision he has to make. So all these dialogues are totally invented. And I didn’t want to put these words into his mouth since he doesn’t mention what arguments the two guys exchange. And therefore we thought it was more honest to give him a different name, not to say this is a true story, but to refer to his diary and say that is what we were inspired by."
The Ninth Day is full of biblical resonances and imagery: washing of feet; a boy giving bread; a convergence of lines reminiscent (though not the same as) of Christ’s last words from the cross ("God has forsaken us… It is finished… Father, forgive me"); life-saving water that tastes of iron and thus of blood. Were these deliberate?
"We felt that they were unavoidable, these images, and the true challenge was to incorporate them in such a way that they didn’t look like quotes. The scene with the bread, well, it was in his diary, and I thought it was a wonderful moment, and it’s very comprehensible that someone who didn’t have a lot of bread would appreciate that.
"I’d go even further and say that the salami he’s sharing with the prisoners at the end, that wasn’t even in the screenplay, but I felt that we needed some kind of a gesture, that through some trick they kind of fool the authority at the end when he comes back and they have this moment in common, but you could also say that’s the Eucharist.
"It was just unavoidable, somehow, these correspondences just kept popping up as we went along, even when they were not planned. It seems to come with the territory."
The Ninth Day digs beyond rote charges of ecclesiastical complicity and counter-arguments to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.