Secrets of the cloth

Film - Philip Kerr on a powerful expose of the most culpable silence in history

I would trust Jeffrey Archer on oath before I would trust a Roman Catholic priest to be alone in a room with either of my sons. As one Roman Catholic diocese after another is revealed to have been a hotbed of paedophile priests and mendacious monsignors, the phrase "priestly intercession" carries a seedy, ithyphallic character that once only applied to certain Dionysian rites. If Father Ted was alive today, his Craggy Island refuge for drunken, embezzling and incompetent priests would soon find itself overrun by a whole Corvo of fondling Fathers.

The Roman Catholic church is no stranger to covering up malpractices and remaining silent in matters of conscience that, normally, would prompt most Christians to reach for a loud-hailer. As Amen, a new film by the Greek-born director Costa-Gavras reminds us, the Vatican refused to condemn Hitler, failing not just Europe's Jews, but also Germany's 23 million Roman Catholics. Arguably, Pope Pius XII's almost monastic unwillingness to speak out against the Nazis in the face of considerable anecdotal evidence that the Jews were being systematically exterminated, ranks as the most culpable silence in history. Ever since then, the Vatican has stood revealed as the immoral authority of the western world, the keeper of Europe's anti-Semitic tradition, and a temporal nation-state as interested in the preservation of its power and wealth as the money-minded Swiss.

Amen is the true story of Kurt Gerstein, a deeply religious man and member of the German Protestant Confessing Church, who joined the SS to investigate what was happening to Europe's Jews. A doctor by profession, Gerstein quickly became head of the Hygiene Technical Department, a euphemistically minded SS unit charged with special responsibility for the speedy liquidation of Europe's Jews.

Assigned to work on tests of lethal Zyklon B gas, Gerstein took notes, made detailed maps of the death camps, and stole incriminating documents to prove what no one wanted to believe: that as many as 10,000 people a day were being exterminated in the camps.

In the absence of any other international religious body, Gerstein contacted the Roman Catholic bishop of Berlin in an effort to alert the Pope to what was going on. True to form, the bishop refused to listen and had Gerstein thrown out of his palace. However, Father Riccardo, the Berlin bishop's priest, was the son of an influential papal nuncio, and, convinced by Gerstein's story, he went to Rome to put the SS man's evidence before the Pope.

Meanwhile, Gerstein did his best to sabotage the Zyklon B deliveries under his control; but with his signatures on all the documentation affecting the Endlosung, and the Pope turning a blind eye to murder, it was not long before Gerstein started to look as guilty as the rest of them. In one scene, his own German efficiency gets the better of him and an exasperated Gerstein can't help but answer a superior officer's technical questions concerning the optimum operating conditions for the gas.

The film raises the same moot point about collaboration as that posed by Judgement at Nuremberg. As a German lawyer indicted for enforcing Nazi ideology, Burt Lancaster asked whether it was more moral to have fled the country the way others did in disgust, or to stay and try to moderate it in a kind of passive protest. But how complicit are you in genocide if apparently you go along with what is being done, in order to furnish others with the means of stopping it?

Amen is based on German playwright Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 drama Der Stellvertreter (The Representative); and yet - unusually - the film is in English with German, French and Italian actors speaking their own foreign-accented dialogue.

Doubtless, there are many purists who could have wished for the art-house authenticity of subtitles - these are the same critics who would also moan if the Nazis had all been played by English actors, and the Jews by Americans - but that should not blind us to the fact that this is a very worthy film and one you should certainly see in preference to the week's other dismal offerings. Frankly, the dialogue would not have differed substantially if, like Istvan Szabo's Mephisto - it had been recorded in Hungarian and German.

There are times, it is true, when this film resembles Holocaust, the American Emmy-winning TV series of the late 1970s - which makes it all the more surprising that the film still has no US distributor. But Zenit, the Vatican's press agency, doesn't like the film at all, and that's good enough for me. Go and see it before the Holy Inquisitors manage to collect up all the available prints and have them burned in your local market square.

Amen (PG) is on general release