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Through a Lens Darkly

Films of Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

John J. Michalczyk and SJ Raymond G. Helmick

While the ashes of the Holocaust were still fresh, Polish Jewish attorney Raphael Lemkin put a name to the tragedy that had decimated his family – genocide. The twentieth century was brutally scarred by the massive scale of genocide and its manifest forms of ethnic cleansing, massacres, and atrocities. We ask how these horrors can be visually translated to the screen while both maintaining their authenticity and serving as commercial «entertainment». Through an analysis of a series of poignant films on the plight of the Native Americans, the controversial Armenian genocide, the Holocaust and its legacy, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Hutu-sponsored massacres in Rwanda, the reader can grasp the driving mechanisms of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The oft-repeated, «Never again» rings hollow to our ears in the wake of these tragedies in a post-Holocaust era. The films discussed here, both features and documentaries, are set in an historical context that sheds light on the dark side of humanity and are then discussed with the hope of better understanding our frailty. In the end, however, we ask can the «unrepresentable» ever be represented?
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Amen. (2002), the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust: Kevin P. Spicer, CSC


Kevin P. Spicer, CSC

Shortly after depicting Pope Pius XII deliver his 1942 Christmas address, the film, Amen., fast-forwards to a scene in Rome in which prelates, diplomats, and counsels are seated together at a table sharing a meal. This, however, is not just any ordinary meal. Something unsettling is being discussed. Father Ricardo Fontana, a protagonist in the film, is exhibiting to the dignitaries a map detailing the number of German concentration camps extant in Europe at the time. He is also listing for them the number of Jews already murdered in these camps. Continuing their meal, one by one the dignitaries advance arguments as to why the Church is unable to ask the Allied powers to intercede on behalf of the Jews. One guest even goes so far as to suggest that if the Pope protested, the Germans would invade the Vatican and all would be lost. Father Ricardo assails such argument, pleading: “Should we save the Vatican or Christianity?” The dignitaries are not impressed. An elderly prelate, clearly in disagreement, counsels, “The Church is made of patience, faith, and hard work.”1

In Amen., screenwriters Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg recreate many such scenes, mixing historical facts with fictional encounters, in an attempt to uncover the deeper, more unsettling realities of the Catholic Church’s actions during the Holocaust. The screenwriters, however, did not start from scratch. Rather, they based their screenplay on the 1963 stage play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy) by German playwright Rolf...

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