Critiquing a Film That Faults Pius XII on the Holocaust

Interview with French Historian Jean-Yves Riou

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 17, 2002 ( The magazine Histoire du Christianisme will be on sale in bookstores and kiosks in France this week with a special issue entitled "The Holocaust and Pius XII: The Three Temptations of Costa Gavras."

The issue analyzes the film director´s movie "Amen," which was presented Wednesday at the Berlin Festival, and is inspired by Rolf Hochhuth´s anti-papal play "The Vicar."

ZENIT interviewed historian Jean-Yves Riou, director of the magazine, to understand the historical value of this film adaptation of the book.

Q: You have already published an issue of Histoire du Christianisme on Pope Eugenio Pacelli entitled "Pius XII, Hitler´s Pope" [No. 7, May 2001], and now you are publishing another because of Costantin Costa Gavras´ film. First of all, have you seen the film? What did you think of it?

Riou: Yes, I have seen it. "Amen" reminds us of the Holocaust, which is something good. The Holocaust continues to be a current topic, which calls for reflection. Clearly, "Amen" affects the figure of Kurt Gerstein [played by Ulrich Tukur], and I think this is important, because it could be a kind of public response to the denial delirium.

Moreover, "Amen" poses fundamental questions: indifference, moral responsibility, God´s silence in the maelstrom of evil, the meaning of life. These are excellent questions, and it is perfectly normal to ask them. I can assure you it was not Mr. Costa Gavras who invented them.

However, from my point of view, this film gives poor answers. For a very simple reason: it sacrifices history on the altar of the cinematographic "pamphlet." In fact, Costa Gavras is not much interested in the question of "how." He goes immediately to the question "why?" and then he gives us opinions as answers.

Q: Would you say, then, that it is a "good film," as an Agence France-Presse dispatch on Wednesday stated, distorting the statements of a supporter of the Church in France?

Riou: If it is about a cinematographic judgment, I would say yes, why not. "Amen" is a good film, but I have no more competence in this domain than that of a simple spectator. If you ask my judgment on the legitimacy of the questions posed, then I would also say that "Amen" is a good film.

However, if it refers to the historical background and the image the film gives of the Catholic Church during the war, then I would say that "Amen" is a film that deteriorates into a caricature. Rather than encouraging reflection, it only supports certain prejudices and makes the Catholic Church an easy scapegoat.

Do you know that, according to Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish consul in Milan, the Catholic Church was the institution that saved the greatest number of Jews during the war?

Q: A key character in the film is Father Riccardo Fontana. Is there historical evidence about who he was?

Riou: No, as opposed to [SS officer] Gerstein, Fontana is a fictitious character. In watching the film, the spectator will be faced with the permanent dilemma: Is it a novel or history? Of course, I understand the limits of the cinema, but in this case the topic is serious.

With respect to Fontana, we might say that he is an inverted image of the young Pacelli: They look somewhat alike, he is a diplomat in Berlin, Roman, from a family of lawyers at the service of the Holy See. ... But with Fontana he tells us that generosity is misdirected the moment it is embedded in institutions.

In a word, religion can be accepted as an individual phenomenon. Riccardo is very attractive and Mathieu Kassovits plays that role very well, but once institutionalized, religion is no more than a place of power like any other, or worse than others, because it disguises it with good sentiments.

Q: In the film, Kurt Gerstein, the SS officer, meets Monsignor Orsenigo, the nuncio, in Berlin and tells him about the treatment Jews are receiving in Poland. In fact, historically, how did that meeting take place?

Riou: Gerstein himself recounts it in a report quoted in the Nuremberg trials: He never met the nuncio. Therefore, the entire film is based on a fictitious scene. It is true that Gerstein went to the nunciature.

It is not known exactly when. We know he spoke with a member of the nunciature, but we do not know with whom. That´s all we know. It is easy to imagine the reaction of the personnel of the nunciature at the arrival of someone with an SS uniform who says he has revelations.

It was logical to think it was a provocation. There had been precedents. To think the contrary is not to want to know how the Nazis were -- hardened criminals -- and to not understand what a totalitarian state is in which lies, accusations and propaganda reign.

Q: The film, like the play "The Vicar," is presented as a denunciation of Pius XII´s "silence."

Riou: Yes, this is so. Its message is: Pius XII knew and kept quiet, and if he kept quiet, it´s because he was a "politician," obfuscated by the Communist threat, obfuscated by the survival of his own Church and its narrow interest and, perhaps -- why not? -- because he was a racist and anti-Semitist.

These are affirmations that cannot be validated with facts, as we already demonstrated in No. 7 of our magazine Histoire du Christianisme.

Q: From the historical point of view, can it be said that Pius XII "spoke out"? What did the Pope know?

Riou: A distinction must be made between the "before" and "after" of the Final Solution. In 1942, it began to be known that the Nazi crime was under way, but certainly not as we know it today. It is an anachronism to think the contrary.

There were serious indications, information that began to circulate, but they seemed so incredible they could hardly be believed, even in Jewish circles. Moreover, the Nazis obviously used to bluff.

Pius XII broke his famous "silence" on three occasions: in an address to the Christmas 1940 consistory, however, at that time the Final Solution had not started; on Dec. 24, 1942, in his Christmas radio message to which the film makes reference, but in an aseptic version; and on June 2, 1943, at the Sacred College.

Q: The Christmas 1942 address is very long. What did Pius XII wish to say?

Riou: As the works of historian Peter Gumpel, S.J., show, the address is a point-by-point refutation of the "Neue Ordnung" (New Order) program announced by Hitler, which includes racist theses. Of course, he did not express the refutation with today´s style: It was the early days of radio, and it was done like that then.

Q: Why didn´t he use the word "Jews" in that radio message?

Riou: The topic had been discussed, in particular with the Americans. Should the word Jew be used? It was decided no to, because the word would have provoked a dangerous fury in Hitler -- we know it from a report of the nuncio in Berlin, who lived through a similar experience -- and it would have caused an increase in deportations.

This information can be found in the "Acts and Documents Relating to the Holy See," published between 1965 and 1982 at the request of Paul VI.

Q: Did the Nazis understand Pius XII´s denunciation?

Riou: Of course. The whole world understood the 1942 Christmas message. The Reich´s secret services wrote that the Pope "defended the criminal Jews of war." The New York Times wrote that the Pope had defended the Jews.

In essence, the question posed by the film is: If Pius XII had called the Nazi crime by its name, what would have happened? Costa Gavras seems to believe that he would have been able to hold back or even stop the Nazi machine. And he gives his proofs: a protest by the Church halted operation T4, a crime against the handicapped. However, the truth is that the Nazis stopped in order to hit even harder.

And "Amen" does not say this. In 1943, Pius XII explained to the cardinals why he did not denounce the criminals more severely. He knew the Nazis perfectly well and there were precedents of public protests that had ended badly: as, for example, in Holland.

Q: From your point of view, what is at stake in the film?

Riou: It is a film of the past to question the present. I think this is Costa Gavras´ profound intention. He questions the indifference, of yesterday and today, on the triumph of cynicism, of yesterday and today.
The objective of the film, therefore, goes beyond the case of Pius XII. Why make a scapegoat of Pius XII? It is not something rational. Except if one keeps in mind that the "Pius XII case" began in the ´70s. It is virtually contemporary with the consumer society and the triumphant ´60s. It is not something anecdotal.

From my point of view, behind the "Pius XII case," Christianity itself it at stake. Specifically, Christianity in its majority expression, namely, Catholicism.

Why? Because the Catholic Church continues to be today the only community that endeavors to say what is good and evil, "objectives," that is, that are independent of individual will. And this claim is seen as something unjustifiable: This film would like to demonstrate that a "political" institution that made so many mistakes in the past should be silent today.

The question is the justification of the biblical message for our societies. If it cannot be justified, as indeed many of our contemporaries believe, inevitably it is the poorest and weakest who will suffer the consequences.

I think, in fact, that the foundations of the Nazi crime are metaphysical. In attempting to kill Israel, the Nazis tried to kill the biblical message. Why? Because the biblical message denied the Nazi will to power.

[Histoire du Christianisme magazine, No. 9: "La Shoa et Pie XII: Les Trois Tentations de Costa Gavras," may be purchased in kiosks and bookstores in France beginning Thursday. It may be ordered by mail at CLD, BP 203, 37 172 Chambray-les-Tours, (13.50 euros). For more information, telephone 33-02-47-28-20-68 in France.]