The Church under Nazism: a sensitive film portrayal in 'The Ninth Day'

The Church under Nazism: a sensitive film portrayal in 'The Ninth Day'

Michael E. Daniel

One of the highlights of the recent Melbourne International Film Festival was The Ninth Day (2004) directed by Volker Schlöndorff. This film explores the Nazi treatment of Catholic clergy who opposed its regime.

Commencing in the depth of winter, 1942, when the Nazi regime was at its zenith, the audience is confronted with the horrors of life for prisoners in the clergy block of Dachau. The prisoners are fed minimum food, are bashed by the sadistic guards and witness one of their number being killed in a crucifixion style death.

From the opening scenes the film focuses on one of these priests, Abbé Henri Kremer of the Diocese of Luxembourg. Although largely fictionalised, it is based loosely upon the life of Fr Jean Bernard, who was arrested in 1941 for his vocal opposition to the Nazi regime. Ordered to report to one of the SS Officers, Kremer expects the worst, only to be given his clerical attire and transit papers for Luxembourg.

Upon his arrival home and reporting to the Gestapo, he discovers he has been given nine days of leave and must return to Dachau if he is unable to convince his Bishop, known for his opposition to the Nazi regime, to sign a statement publicly endorsing the Nazis.

The film draws its power from the agony of conscience that Kremer now faces. On the one side, he is urged by his family to escape, even to the point where his brother offers him a lift home, only to start to drive him to Paris. Similarly, the Bishop's secretary, who is prepared to take a more accommodating attitude towards the Nazis, extols the benefits of co-operation.

However, the main psychological and spiritual battle Kremer faces is with Untersturmführer Gebhardt, the SS officer charged to secure the Bishop's endorsement, with the veiled threat of being transferred to duties in Eastern camps (i.e., death camps) should he fail to secure his objective.

Early in the film, the SS in dialogue argue that they did not view the actions of the Vatican as a threat; however, they were worried about a proposed statement by Pius XII on the Jews. Gebhardt, a former seminarian, uses his intimate knowledge of theology in his attempt to persuade Kremer.

One of the climactic moments of the film is when Kremer finally meets his Bishop. Kremer declares to him in desperation that although his faith has never been in doubt, he has questioned the silence of Pope Pius XII. The Bishop then reveals to him the true reason of Pius' silence.

The Nazis had retaliated to a protest by the Archbishop of Utrecht at the Nazi treatment of Jews in the Netherlands by rounding up 40,000 Christians of Jewish origin. If Pius were to make such a statement, it could result in the deaths of 300,000-400,000 more people.

The Ninth Day is a moving exploration of the ethical dilemmas that Catholics faced under the Nazi regime. Unlike many contemporary films that present the Church in a negative light, it explores the Church's response to Nazism with sensitivity.

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