2 stars (out of four)
"The Ninth Day," Volker Schloendorff's story about a priest in an ethical crucible during the Holocaust, is a film that strives for meaning and resonance but doesn't quite work. Based loosely on the prison diaries of the Rev. Jean Bernard, it should have the weight of history and lived experience on its side. Unfortunately, it is a maddeningly slow-paced film in which the outcome is never a surprise, and in which the priest's crisis of conscience seems more by the numbers than honestly felt.
It's hard to blame Ulrich Matthes, who plays the priest, here named Henri Kremer. He is all sunken eyes and cheeks, his pupils little dead pools in a face that's beyond weathered. (This is a far moral cry from his portrayal of Joseph Goebbels in Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall.") The Dachau he inhabits is blue and gray, cold and stiff; its relationship to the real world is tenuous at best, an early, introductory level of hell. Schloendorff doesn't show us much Nazi brutality, only enough (it's early and quick) to suggest the unfathomable measure of what they could do, and did.
In Matthes' hands, Kremer is emaciated and a bit bewildered, a Roman Catholic priest unexpectedly released from Dachau so that he may return to his native Luxembourg and act out a Nazi plan for divisiveness among that country's clergy and, hopefully, even the Vatican. On release, Kremer has no idea at all of what's happening, but through a series of meetings with Nazi and church officials, he pieces the scheme together and the role that's been designed for him. He doesn't talk much, unfortunately, or respond much in any way that would give us a sense of what he's thinking or feeling except when he blurts the occasional declarative sentence the scriptwriters have given him.
Schloendorff's vision of Dachau is, frankly, a bit odd. It's true that priests were housed in their own barracks but, in "The Ninth Day," it seems that there is no one else in the camp except Kremer and his fellow clergy. Indeed, the priests, and apparently Catholics in general, are such a focus of Nazi terror that the guards act out their own gruesome crucifixion.
There is mention in "The Ninth Day" of Nazi race laws. (Kremer opposed them and wrote about it, part of what landed him in prison.) And there is vague allusion to the pope, good and bad. (On the one hand he is said to refer to Hitler as "an esteemed gentleman"; on the other, his encyclical is said to prophesy Nazi horrors.)
But though "The Ninth Day" longs for a grander scope, it never lifts much beyond Kremer's personal dilemma. And though there should be something at stake -- the Luxembourg clergy, his cohorts back at Dachau, his family, his soul, in fact -- there is never a sense of urgency here, never a sense that Kremer will falter.
Schloendorff tries to create tension through a series of ponderous philosophical conversations in which the local Nazi chief, Untersturmfuehrer Gebhardt (August Diehl), tries to use scripture to convince Kremer to convert to his side. The Nazi inverts Judas, makes him the true believer, and entreats Kremer to emulate him for the good of all. Without Judas, Gebhardt explains coolly, there would be no crucifixion; without the crucifixion, there would be no "His will be done." (Gebhardt's knowledge of catechism and erudition is explained by making him a former seminarian who decided he could do more good in an SS uniform than in priestly robes.)
But Schloendorff has never given us a reason to doubt Kremer. Sure, he has a dark secret -- a less than honorable act at Dachau -- but precisely because that act must be redeemed, we know Kremer will do what's right.
"The Ninth Day" is a dark, terrible story, but this telling of it never allows the outcome to be questioned. There are interesting performances here, but Matthes, who needed to create a character wholly wrenched by his situation, never rises above the telling itself. Indeed, if anyone really shines here, it's Diehl. Though the script tells us Kremer got the upper hand in their duel, it's hard to believe that Gebhardt isn't sitting in some satanic court as we speak, reaping the rewards of his monstrous earthly existence.
"The Ninth Day"
Directed by Volker Schloendorff; written by Eberhard Goerner and Andreas Pflueger; photographed by Tomas Erhart; edited by Peter R. Adam; music by Alfred Shnitke; production designed by Ari Hantke; produced by Jurgen Haase, Wolfgang Plehn and Jean-Claude Schlim. In German with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:30. No MPAA rating; parents cautioned for an instance of brief, unexpected violence.
Henri Kremer - Ulrich Matthes
Untersturmfuehrer Gebhardt - August Diehl
Bischof Philippe - Hilmar Thate
Marie Kremer - Bibiana BeglauCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times