Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) is one of the best film critics on the Web today, and he’s just discovered a must-see.

The Ninth Day

Just caught The Ninth Day at NYC’s Tribeca Film Festival (an event I’m not otherwise attending), will hopefully be interviewing the director within the next day or two.

Suffice to say I’ve got one of my top 10 films of the year.

I’ve seen any number of films set in and around Nazi concentration camps, but I can’t remember ever seeing one that actually explores that familiar scenario of moral philosophy, the attempted moral subversion of the prisoner by the Nazi commander. Technically, Fr. Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes) isn’t in custody for most of the film (he’s on a nine-day sabbatical from Dachau’s priest block), and Nazi officer Gebhardt (August Diehl) isn’t a camp commandant, but the dynamic is effectively the same.

This attempted subversion takes two forms. Gebhardt has something that he wants Kremer to do, and if he doesn’t, Gebhardt has ways of punishing Kremer. Gebhardt’s religious training also enables him to try to undermine the moral outlook enabling Kremer to resist him. As long as Kremer holds out (and how far or to what extent he does or doesn’t hold out I won’t reveal), though, there are things Gebhardt can make Kremer do, and things he can’t, and where Kremer draws the line makes for intriguing moral reflection.

The film’s most notable achievement, though, is in its handling of the subject of the Nazis, the Holocaust, and the Catholic Church. In this regard The Ninth Day is quite simply THE film to see. Its importance in this connection would be difficult to overstate.

The Ninth Day digs beyond rote charges of “silence” and easy swipes at collaborationist clerics to explore various levels of resistance and protest — along with their consequences — from Kremer’s active resistance activities and sabotage, which get him sent to Dachau, to the symbolic protests of Kremer’s staunchly anti-Nazi 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 Pope Pius XII that so discourages Kremer.

In this latter connection, extraordinarily, it actually puts Pius’s “silence” into historical context: To Kremer’s protests of Pius’s silence, Kremer’s bishop emphatically points out that when the Dutch bishops protested the deportations of Jews in the Netherlands, the SS responded by rounding up 40,000 Catholics of Jewish origin. “What would the results be of a letter of protest from the pope?” the bishop asks. “300,000? 400,000?”

We also see the bishop reading from the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Sorrow”), an oblique condemnation of Nazi principlesissued by Pius XII’s predecessor Pius XI but substantially written by the future Pius XII, Cardinal Pacelli, and commenting that everything the Holy Father predicted about the Nazis — the idolatry of blood and race, etc. — has come true.

Still, in the face of the smugness of the Nazi officer who says “I have no gripes with the Vatican” and dismisses the possibility of a trenchant statement from the Vatican by observing that Pius XII sent Hitler birthday greetings and condemned the Allied bombing of Reich cities, the frustrating ambiguity of the situation remains. It would be nice if the spirit of Mit Brennender Sorge had been more explicitly reaffirmed throughout the war years. OTOH, it wouldn’t be nice if 300,000 or 400,000 more had been rounded up. And with Nazi occupation of Rome, a kidnapping plot against the pope, etc., and various covert Catholic anti-Nazi operations supported at various levels, the Vatican’s diplomatic status was tricky enough.

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 and a sort of mole or something near one corner of his mouth, are very well cast, and their philosophical/theological chess game is gripping. I like the bit where Gebhardt comments that it was his mother’s fondest wish that her son be a priest, to have “a dignitary in the family.” Kremer’s response: “A priest is a servant, not a dignitary. My mother knew that.” At one point Kremer abruptly loses patience with Gebhardt’s games, and cautious self-preservation gives way to an angry outburst; Gebhardt’s response is both chilling and exhausting.

Lots of biblical / Christian / sacramental imagery/resonances (a boy shares his bread with Kremer; there’s a foot-washing scene; Kremer survives at one point on a trickle of water from a drain pipe that tastes of iron oxide and thus like blood; back-to-back lines about God having forsaken Kremer, “It is finished,” and asking God for forgiveness).

More later…