The Dachau concentration camp was the first concentration camp of the Nazi regime, and the central holding place for imprisoned Catholic and non-Catholic Christian leaders. In fact, the "priest block" at Dachau has been called the largest religious community in the world, having held up to 3,000 Catholic priests, deacons, bishops, and religious, plus about 100 Protestant pastors and 30 Orthodox clergy. About a thousand died there.
One day in February 1942, one of these prisoners, Luxembourg priest Jean Bernard, was unexpectedly released from Dachau and sent home to his family. Upon arrival, though, his elation turned to shock and grief as he learned, first, that the apparent occasion for his release from the camp was his mother’s death, and, second, that once he had buried her he would be required to return to the camp.
Other than this strange reprieve, Abbé Bernard’s Dachau internment is notable for the prison diary he kept recounting the priests’ sufferings in the camp, from the usual (beating and torture, starvation) to the exotic (barbed-wire crowns of thorns, ersatz crucifixions). Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ninth Day, a fictionalized account of Abbé Bernard’s Dachau experiences, depicts these horrors with stark objectivity and restraint. But it’s the brief furlough from camp that makes The Ninth Day more than just another concentration camp film.
Drama, like morality, turns on choices. Human suffering, as such, can occasion horror and empathy as well as outrage at the perpetrators, but it’s not what we passively suffer but what we actively choose that defines us as human beings. For most concentration camp inmates, obviously, the scope of available choices is sharply limited, but here is an inmate who was given a larger choice: whether to try to save himself, to flee, or to return to the camp and prevent Nazi retaliation against his fellow priests in Dachau.
Beyond this, during his reprieve the priest was also apparently enticed in some way by the Luxembourg Gestapo to capitulate to the Nazi occupiers for the sake of permanent release. Expanding on this incident, the film imagines a series of interviews between the physically broken priest and a young Nazi officer over the nine days of the priest’s leave during which he is pressured first to try to persuade his bishop to collaborate, then to sign a statement of loyalty to the Nazis. These interviews form the backbone of The Ninth Day’s moral drama.
Because of this dramatic license, among others, the film’s fictionalized protagonist has been given a different name, Henri Kremer. Other liberties include the adoption of an incident involving a water pipe from the memoirs of a different man, Auschwitz prisoner Primo Levi, and the way that the protagonist’s voice is used to engage a distinctly modern theme: the silence of Pope Pius XII regarding Nazi atrocities.
This "silence" is something that the real Abbé Bernard understood quite well. His prison diary documents the consequences that accompanied each ecclesiastical protest:
The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican. We all had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked. Whenever the way we were treated became more brutal, the Protestant pastors among the prisoners used to vent their indignation on the Catholic priests: "Again your big naive Pope and those simpletons, your bishops, are shooting their mouths off. Why don’t they get the idea once and for all, and shut up? They play the heroes and we have to pay the bill.’ "
The Ninth Day shows something of the Nazi responses to ecclesiastical protests, but it also depicts the fictionalized Abbé Kremer dealing with disappointment over Pius XII’s relative silence. "I never doubt the Church," he tells his bishop, "but sometimes I doubt the Holy Father."
It thus falls to the bishop to respond to Kremer’s doubts. "Do you know what happened in the Netherlands?" he asks, and recounts how a letter of protest from the Dutch bishops responding to arrests of Dutch Jews led to retaliatory arrests of Catholics of Jewish descent. "That pastoral letter sent 40,000 to their doom," the bishop points out. "What would be the cost of a letter from the pope? 300,000? 400,000?"
The Ninth Day is not a rah-rah apologetic for the role of Catholic leaders during WWII, if that would even be appropriate. For one thing, it recognizes the difficulty and ambiguity inherent in so complex a subject. When a smug Nazi officer points to Vatican condemnations of Allied bombing and even birthday greetings for Hitler, complacently remarking, "I have no quarrel with the Vatican," it’s easy to feel that, indeed, the pope might have taken a less diplomatically nuanced approach. And of course collaborators and anti-Semites did exist among the clergy.
Yet the broad-brush charge of ecclesiastical complicity has enjoyed such wide and uncritical acceptance in mainstream culture generally and in particular in films such as Amen. and The Statement, that for a film to take a more nuanced view, to depict priests and bishops opposed to and suffering under the Nazi regime, and even to put the pope’s "silence" into historical perspective seems almost a minor miracle.
The Ninth Day digs beyond rote charges of ecclesiastical complicity and counter-arguments to explore various levels of resistance and protest — and their consequences — from Abbé Kremer’s active resistance activities, to the symbolic protests of Kremer’s bishop, who confines himself to ringing the church bells every day and sequestering himself in his residence so as to have nothing to do with the occupying forces, to the "silence" of Pius XII that discourages Abbé Kremer.
The film’s heart, though, is not in the politics of resistance, but in the interplay between Abbé Kremer (Ulrich Matthes, fresh from the diametrically opposite role of Nazi propagandist Joseph Göebbels in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall) and the Nazi officer Gebhardt (August Diehl). Matthes, with his impossibly sunken cheeks and haunted, hollowed eyes, and Diehl with his clean-cut Aryan good looks marred only by a certain severity of expression, are ideally cast.
Kremer’s position in these interviews is further complicated Gebhardt’s past as a one-time seminarian, which he uses to try to subvert Kremer’s religious foundation with arguments about Judas Iscariot and Jesus’ relationship to Judaism. "It was my mother’s fondest wish that I become a priest," Gebhardt reminisces, "to have a dignitary in the family."
Kremer’s answer: "Priests are servants, not dignitaries. My mother knew that." Yet Kremer is too weakened, and too powerless, to make a fit sparring partner for Gebhardt — and it’s to his credit that he recognizes this and doesn’t even try. Gebhardt makes a show of treating him as a guest and an equal, but Kremer makes a point of insisting on his real status as a prisoner. Their wary interactions, which could easily have degenerated into mere philosophical chess matches, are saved from doing so solely by Kremer’s refusal to play by Gebhardt’s rules.
Instead, they become something more challenging and austere: temptation in the original sense of the term, trial or testing. For Kremer, even to argue with Gebhardt is to falsify the reality of the situation between them, giving in to Gebhardt — as evidenced by Gebhardt’s own reaction on one occasion when Kremer’s temper does briefly get the better of him.
In exploring this dynamic, The Ninth Day dramatizes a type of moral crisis that is often hypothetically discussed, but seldom engaged in serious moral drama. Students of moral philosophy often seek to clarify problematic moral issues by positing "concentration camp scenarios," allowing extreme disproportionate consequences to be arbitrarily attached to all sorts of moral actions. Concentration-camp dramas, on the other hand, typically deal with the struggle for survival or escape rather than the possibility of moral crisis.
The Ninth Day takes the concentration-camp scenario beyond hypothetical discussion and gives it full-blooded human reality. Even though Kremer’s trial comes while he is technically outside the camp, the dynamic is the same.
Another Dachau survivor, Viktor Frankl, went on to argue in Man’s Search for Meaning that man’s most basic drive is not for pleasure, as Freud thought, but significance, and that men will willingly endure and even choose dreadful suffering if they can find purpose in it. The concentration camps, Frankl felt, showcased humanity at its worst and most depraved, but also at its purest and most profoundly human. Few films illustrate Frankl’s thesis as profoundly as The Ninth Day.
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.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.