Volker Schlondorff's "The Ninth Day," an engrossing film from the director of "The Tin Drum," takes the viewer into an all-too-familiar world of the hell on Earth of Dachau -- but with a difference. The grim setting is the so-called Priests' Block, reserved for dissidents among the clergy of all faiths, especially Roman Catholics. The guards are uniformly virulent anti-papists and resort to crucifixion as a form of punishment.
Among the prisoners is Abbe Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes), a hollow-cheeked man whose strong yet gentle presence is that of an individual with the courage to have spoken out against the Nazis and worked with the French Resistance. Yet on Jan. 15, 1942, Kremer is abruptly released and sent home to Luxembourg, where he is met by a young SS officer, Untersturmfuhrer Gebhardt (August Diehl).
At his office the next day, Gebhardt informs Kremer that, alas, Berlin has decided that his release is but a nine-day temporary leave during which time he is expected to have an audience with the bishop of Luxembourg and persuade him to accede to the Nazi occupation, thus driving a wedge between Luxembourg and the Vatican.
Schlondorff and his writers adapted their film from the diary kept by Father Jean Bernard during his internment at Dachau, which included an account of Bernard's actual leave for the purpose of meeting with the bishop.
With economy and irony, Schlondorff suggests that everyone is caught in an infernal Nazi trap. If Kremer either refuses to cooperate or fails to persuade the bishop, he places his family and fellow imprisoned priests in jeopardy. If Gebhardt fails to bend Kremer to his will, he will be sent to help oversee a concentration camp in the East.
Yet it is uncertain whether the bishop will even meet with Kremer, for he has sequestered himself in his quarters, receiving no one and ordering the cathedral bell rung each day at the same time to protest the Nazi presence.
The core of the film becomes the test of wills between Kremer and Gebhardt, who, for a reason never disclosed, once served time in a camp and even studied for the priesthood. Instead he decided the best way to fulfill his fervent Christian faith was to serve Hitler. He is a great admirer of Judas, whom he has decided to revere as the betrayer who made Christ's redemption possible -- and he encourages Kremer to cast himself in the same role.
Matthes' worn, frail Kremer and Diehl's pale, bland Gebhardt, last seen as Joseph Goebbels in "Downfall," are well-matched adversaries, implicitly emblematic of the eternal struggle between good and evil on a most sophisticated level.
This handsome film, which has an aptly desaturated look, follows Kremer through the days of his brief leave, with his meetings with Gebhardt and the bishop's insinuating secretary (Gotz Burger) interspersed with bittersweet times with his family and nightmares of Dachau. Although a film largely of discourse, "The Ninth Day" moves briskly, building tension quietly but relentlessly. In all aspects, including Alfred Shnitke's rich, haunting score, "The Ninth Day" is an accomplished, confident work.
'The Ninth Day'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Scenes depicting concentration camp brutality too intense for children
A Kino International release. Director Volker Schlondorff. Producers Jurgen Haase, Wolfgang Plehn and Jean-Claude Schlim. Screenplay Eberhard Gorner and Andreas Pfluger. Cinematographer Tomas Erhart. Editor Peter R. Adam. Music Alfred Shnitke. Production designer Ari Hantke. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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