Thursday, September 16, 2004

Der Neunte Tag (The Ninth Day)

The Ninth Day is a powerful movie set during World War II. It follows a priest named Kremer, played by Ulrich Matthes, who has been interned in the concentration camp at Dachau. One day, he is suddenly given a nine-day leave and sent back to his home in Luxembourg. There, a young SS officer named Gebhardt, played by August Diehl, directs him to talk to the bishop to get him to stop ringing the church bells in defiance of the occupying Germans, or failing that, for himself, Kremer, to write a letter expressing compatibility between the Catholic Church and the Nazi ideals.

Kremer, in a short period of time, is forced to confront his own demons and re-examine his faith. This struggle is played out in part through the theological debates that he has with Gebhardt, as the latter tries to convince him that the two aren't so different in their aims.

This was an excellent film highlighted by the performances of the two lead characters, Matthes and Diehl. Matthes is especially good as he comes to terms with his actions in the camp, questions his faith in the face of so much horror and tragedy, and comes to a decision about what he must do for his country, his family, his fellow priests, and his own conscience.

The Ninth Day was directed by Volker Schlondorff, who also directed and co-wrote the Academy Award-winning The Tin Drum. Schlondorff attended the screening and did a Q&A after the movie:

Some notes from the Q&A:

- Schlondorff had sworn he would never do a movie set in a concentration camp. In 1956, when he was 16, he had seen Night and Fog, and thought the subject was such a shock to see, that it was something that was beyond staging, that one could not represent it. Years later, after movies, such as Schlinder's List and The Pianist had tackled the same subject, and after reading such a strong human story, Schlondorff wanted to do this film.

- The movie is based on a true story, which was relased in 1945. The author himself, who is represented by Kremer in the movie, died in 1994. However, the period of the movie in Luxembourg only takes up a half-page or so, so no one really knows what the conversations really were.

- The movie is partly about temptation; in the Bible, the devil usually chooses someone who is weak. In the movie, Gebhardt is the devil, who has all the good arguments, and who doesn't fight, but attempts to seduce Kremer with his words. In fact, their arguments are staged as a sort of 7-round fight, rather than pages and pages of dialogue to bore the audience.

- The arguments used by Gebhardt were found in documents of the period.

- There are a number of scenes where the image becomes fuzzy, subjective, and fragmented. This was intentional, as the diary on which the film was based is cinematic, fragmented, and with tunnel vision. In the book, the author sees only the heels of the person in front of him as he walks through the camp; he sees only bits and pieces, described in a very prosaic way. In the movie, when Kremer turns his head, he is so weak, and his vision is so shaky, the camera represents this.

- The diary reminded Schlondorff of a silent movie. He and his cinematographer screened Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc for inspiration.

- Music in the film included Concerto Grosso, by the Russian composer Schnittke. Schlondorff had first heard the music when he bought it in St. Petersburg. He showed the film with the music to Schnittke's widow, and commented on how well it fit with the movie, and it turns out that Schnittke had written much music for the Russian cinema as a way to pay the bills and support his more "serious" musical efforts.

- The movie was filmed at a reconstruction of part of Dachau at a military base. Filming at the real camp is prohibited out of respect for the victims, and Schlondorff couldn't even film a scene outside the camp at the gate.

- One scene in the movie, involving a water pipe, is based on the writings of Primo Levy and his experiences at Auschwitz, and comes from a chapter entitled Shame.

- Schlondorff intentionally did not delve deeply into the controversy over the Catholic Church's role during the war or the decisions of the Vatican, since it has been dealt with by others in the theatre and in film. Schlondorff said, who is he to blame the church, and instead wanted to concentrate on individuals and celebrate the bravery of the priests who suffered and died in the camps.

- Schlondorff himself is Protestant, but spent time in a Jesuit boarding school, where the priests encouraged him to pursue a career in filmmaking.

- Schlondorff said Ontario had a special place in his heart, alluding to the controversy over The Tin Drum, which was initially banned by provincial censors, a decision which was later overturned due to the efforts of determined protestors.

- The movie will open theatrically in November, and after, Schlondorff said, all the fuss about the Hitler movie, The Ninth Day will come along and show the real effects. This is an allusion to Der Untergang (Downfall), which is also screening at the festival and has engendered controversy over its portrayal of Hitler and other Nazis during the war.

- Schlondorff said that August Diehl is one of the finest stage actors in Germany, also with 23 films to his credit, and Ulrich Matthes is primarily a stage actor.


My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
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