The Ninth Day
English Title: The Ninth Day
Original Title: Der neunte Tag
Country of Origin: Germany, Luxembourg, Czech Republic
Studio: Provobis Film, Videopress S.A., Bayerrischer Rundfunk (BR), BeltFilm, ARTE
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Cinematographer: Tomas Erhart
Editor: Peter R. Adam
Runtime: 98 minutes
Genre: Historical Drama, Thriller, War
Language: German, French
Kremer’s counterpart is the head of the Gestapo in Luxembourg, SS Untersturmführer Gebhardt (Diehl). He, too, is a man of faith, having been ordained as a deacon before joining the followers of his new saviour, Adolf Hitler. Kremer and Gebhardt meet regularly during the nine days and a wide-ranging philosophical duel develops between them. Kremer eventually meets Bishop Philippe, who refuses to drop his resistance. Left to deal with his own conscience, and after much agonising, Kremer decides against collaborating with the Nazis and on the ninth day returns to Dachau.
Schlöndorff’s camera takes us inside the concentration camp, but the portrayal of the Holocaust is much more concentrated and focussed than a film such as Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993). With the exception of a gruelling eleven-minute opening sequence as Kremer is delivered to the camp and a fellow priest is brutally crucified, the violence in The Ninth Day is almost entirely psychological, and the film comes close to being a thriller. The two main characters – Kremer and Gebhardt – are complex human beings, and the film is more successful in its portrayal of moral dilemmas than many films dealing with the Holocaust and the Third Reich. There are no black and white divisions here. Kremer is tormented by his decision to deny potentially life-saving water to a fellow internee, and Gebhardt comes across as a genuine man of faith who follows his convictions, even when they lead him to support a genocidal regime.
All too often film directors are over-enthusiastic in their depiction of the Nazis as irredeemably evil and uncultured brutes. The figure of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List is a good example. In reality, many of them – including figures such as Gebhardt – enjoyed an enlightened education in the western tradition, and appear to have had little problem assimilating their participation in genocide with an appreciation of western culture and Christianity. A pillar of the post-war settlement has been the idea that exposure to the cultural traditions of Western Europe would protect the world from the re-emergence of fascism. Schlöndorff questions this belief through his humanisation of Gebhardt, a man who moved seamlessly from seminarist to SS officer and sees the Nazis as crusaders against godless Bolshevism. It is this questioning of simple explanations of National Socialism that represents The Ninth Day’s greatest contribution to the cinema’s attempts to come to terms with Germany’s past.
The film is visually restrained, particularly in the use of colour and its portrayal of Luxembourg in winter. Ulrich Matthes, with his penetrating eyes and drawn face, is ideal for the role of Henri Kremer, although in a strange twist of fate he also appeared as the leading Nazi Joseph Goebbels in Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film that appeared in German cinemas just two months before The Ninth Day. The use of the music of Alfred Schnitke in the opening camp sequence – and subsequent flashbacks – is particularly telling and powerful.
Attempts to come to terms with the past are not helped by over-simplification and generalisation. In The Ninth Day Volker Schlöndorff consciously focuses on a single and relatively minor event in the history of the Third Reich. He resists the temptation to try and capture the enormity of the Holocaust and the complex relationship between the Christian churches and Hitler’s regime. In doing so he gives us a taut and compelling insight into the psychological torment suffered by many who fell victim to the terrors of National Socialism.
Author of this review: Brian Long