German Filmmaker Tackles the Holocaust in 'Ninth Day'

Volker Schlondorff is an Academy Award-winning German filmmaker who has focused on many aspects of German culture and history, but vowed never to make a movie about concentration camps — until now. The Ninth Day tells the story of a priest who is torn between what is best for the church and his people.

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The latest film from the Academy Award-winning director Volker Schlondorff is called "The Ninth Day." It's the story of a Catholic priest who was imprisoned at the concentration camp Dachau and who was released on a nine-day furlough. The filmmaker uses this true story as inspiration for a fictional film. It illuminates a struggle of conscience between religion and politics. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL reporting:

Volker Schlondorff is one of Germany's most honored postwar filmmakers. He won an Oscar for his 1979 movie "The Tin Drum," which took place on the eve of World War II and he's made films dealing with nearly every aspect of German politics and history, except one. Schlondorff long ago vowed never to dramatize the experience of the concentration camps.

Mr. VOLKER SCHLONDORFF (Filmmaker): Yeah, I'm of the generation who, after the war when I was 15 in the mid-'50s or so, saw for the first time this newsreel stuff from Bergen-Belsen and the opening of the camps and the horror, the piles of skeletons, and I thought, `This is a world you cannot stage ever.'

DOWELL: But then a script landed on his desk dealing with a little-known aspect of that horror, the priest bloc in Dachau, where more than 2,500 Catholic clergy were interned. The screenplay was based on the story of a priest from Luxembourg named Jean Bernard who kept a diary which Schlondorff read.

Mr. SCHLONDORFF: He was just very matter-of-fact describing the day-to-day life starting from sunrise to night, what they eat, how deafening the sound of the spoons in their tin bowls was when they tried to scrape out their last bit of soup...

(Soundbite of spoons scraping bowls)

Mr. SCHLONDORFF: ...how when he walks he doesn't see the courtyard. He has no idea of the dimensions of the camp because all he can focus on is the feet of the guy walking in front of him. He's describing the entire camp in close-ups like a filmmaker.

(Soundbite of "The Ninth Day")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

DOWELL: Most of "The Ninth Day" takes place outside Dachau. The historical priest never revealed why the Nazis let him leave for nine days. In the film, they want the priest to help persuade Luxembourg's bishop to end opposition to the occupation which he marks each day by ringing the church bell.

(Soundbite of church bells)

DOWELL: The bishop's resistance is a historical fact, says Harold Marcuse, professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the book "Legacies of Dachau." He points out that the Vatican and the German church signed an agreement in 1933 not to speak out against the Nazis. The bishop of occupied Luxembourg did not speak out, but he refused to leave his church or invite the Nazis in.

Professor HAROLD MARCUSE (University of California at Santa Barbara): And such symbolic actions are something that show, `We are still ringing it, although it's forbidden to ring church bells.' It's a fairly brave move to just continue doing that. There's a symbolic force that creates a space in which oppositional activities against Nazism is possible.

DOWELL: Since the end of World War II, Marcuse says, questions of resistance, collaboration and complicity with the Third Reich have been at the heart of much German art, literature and public debate. Everyone has had to deal with it in one way or another, says Ulrich Matthes, the actor who plays the priest in "The Ninth Day."

Mr. ULRICH MATTHES ("The Ninth Day"): It belongs to the German identity in a way, which is hard enough, but it's a fact, and we have to--if you are an artist in Germany, if you are a political human being or if you are a human being--I don't know--with a heart and a soul and a mind, then you have to confront to the Holocaust.

DOWELL: Matthes started work on Volker Schlondorff's film only a week after he finished shooting another movie, "Downfall," in which he played Josef Goebbels. This high-profile production about Hitler's final days was one of a growing number of German movies about the Third Reich which Schlondorff wanted to counter with his own film.

Mr. SCHLONDORFF: All of a sudden, it seemed to be like a wave of films dealing with Nazis as--How should I say?--human interest stories almost. There seems to be a difference in the aesthetic approach. One makes it easy for people to enter history when history is presented like a soap opera, and if you go for it with a certain severity, well, it is very tough on the audience.

DOWELL: Because it forces the audience to confront the moral dilemma the priest faces. Daily he meets with a Nazi officer who says that he studied for the priesthood but found a more powerful way of fulfilling his Christian mission when he chose the SS. The priest calls him a betrayer.

(Soundbite of "The Ninth Day")

Unidentified Man #1: (German spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (German spoken)

DOWELL: This is how the Nazis subverted institutions, Volker Schlondorff says, and how some are subverting religion today.

Mr. SCHLONDORFF: So many people, you know, argue with faith and religion and this and that, but I don't ever feel any true faith in these guys. I have the feeling they use religion as a tool for their aims. And here we have the example of a man who truly believes and does not want his religion and his faith to be used for any other aims but spiritual aims.

DOWELL: The film touches only briefly on how the institution of the church avoided dealing with Nazi politics. Professor Harold Marcuse wonders what would have happened if the Vatican had made the same space for dissent that the bishop of Luxembourg did.

Prof. MARCUSE: We don't know, but what we do know is the fact that the Vatican and the German Center Party and the German Catholic Church promised to the Nazi Party that the German Catholic Church would not get involved in politics basically pulled the rug out from under any priest who wanted to speak out.

DOWELL: But for German Volker Schlondorff, the actions of institutions would not have made very much difference.

Mr. SCHLONDORFF: This is where, in a sense, I believe more in American culture and an American approach which is the responsibility ultimately always lies with the individual.

DOWELL: Volker Schlondorff's film has been nominated for eight German film awards. The winners will be announced next month. "The Ninth Day" opens gradually throughout this country over the next two months.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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