Madagascar Mediocre, Sandler Stumbles
The Ninth Day, which screened at the Seattle International Film Festival and will play in limited release around the country in the coming weeks, was directed by Volker Schlöndorff (The Handmaid's Tale). It is based on the journals of Father Jean Bernard, one of many priests held captive in a Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in 1940. Father Bernard's writings provided the basis for the central character, Henri Kremer (Matthes). Early in the film, Kremer is released from the camp, but his troubles are just beginning. During his reunion with his family, he is interrupted by a Gestapo agent who interrogates him. Kremer is told he has nine days to convince his bishop to work with the Nazis, or he'll have to go back to the concentration camp. Knowing any attempt to escape this sentence will send his fellow priests to their execution, Kremer is forced to decide what path is best.
The film focuses not on military conflict, but on theological debates. And in its portrayal of the conflict around and within the Catholic church during World War II, it earns high praise from Christian film critics, who note that audiences are rarely given a proper impression of the predicament in which Catholics found themselves during the days of Hitler's atrocities.
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is thoroughly impressed, calling it "an intelligent and emotionally forceful meditation on faith, redemption and the cost of true discipleship." Reminded of the "strong moral dilemma" at the heart of A Man for All Seasons, and impressed with the performances, he says this "dialogue-heavy" film "has a life-and-death urgency." He also rates this film as "one of the most beautiful depictions of the priesthood ever filmed."
Also enthusiastic, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says the film depicts the horrors of the Holocaust "with stark objectivity and restraint." And he adds that, while it is not "a rah-rah apologetic for the role of Catholic leaders during WWII," it does acknowledge "the difficulty and ambiguity inherent in so complex a subject." In short, he's pleased that the film does not make the usual, simplistic swipe at Catholicism. "The broad-brush charge of ecclesiastical complicity has enjoyed such wide and uncritical acceptance in mainstream culture … 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."
In a new interview with Volker Schlöndorff, Greydanus observes, "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." He asks Schlöndorff if these were deliberate echoes of Scripture; the director's answer is very interesting.
Mainstream critics are also moved. David Denby (The New Yorker) writes, "This film is powerful, concise, fully sustained. In movies, the concentration camps have been dramatized so often that further representation of them threatens to become kitsch, but Schlöndorff, working in brief strokes, rapidly sets up the world of labor, brutality, and death without resorting to cliché . For American audiences, he has a new subject: the sufferings of the anti-Nazi Catholic clergy." A.O. Scott (New York Times) says it "succeeds in illuminating an almost unimaginably dark story."
For a list of the film's locations and playdates, click here.
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