The responsibility of the filmmakers of today is great. What was once the spoken word, and later the written word, today is – unfortunately, if you ask me – the picture that we see on the big screen – a mighty tool used for the mobilization of people, for the shaping of human society. The burden of responsibility of those who make historical films is even greater, especially for those who take the historical events of modern world as the main motif of the story. There’s no need to point out what is in stakes for trying to present to the audience the greatest trauma of modernity – Holocaust. On the other hand, it is the story that needs to be told, and the one that always makes an impact on the viewer. The greater the suffering, the greater the drama, the greater the story – that’s how it goes. So go on with the storytelling, but go with caution.
And caution in this place means: carefully study the event you’re going to present, study its characters, study its historical background. These are the points on which I’ll base my review, and to make it more serious I’ll start by saying that my profession is historian. My field of research is the interwar period in Europe and the WWII, especially the totalitarian ideologies and regimes. That is why I read this script in the first place, that and the curiosity – I was wandering what a script of the month would look like.
The long introduction is over, what follows are the objections. There’re some mistakes that strike me as incredible ones: on p.1 Old Francis begins the story with the words “The darkness had yet to fall” accompanied with the SUPER: Warsaw, September 1939. But the war started in the dawn of September the 1st, 1939. So how can it be? The first few pages obviously take action before the beginning of the war, so the month can only be August. Then there’s the radio in a Polish flatbed truck. That cannot be either, since the (automobile’s) radio at that time was used only in armored cars, and not even all of them (to my knowledge, not in Polish armored cars).
Smaller objections follow. There is a temporal jump on p.8: the Germans are on the streets of Warsaw. How did it happen? The war, the fighting, the shock of defeat among the Poles cannot be left out. Fr. Kolbe was arrested for the first time on Sept. 19, 1939 and released on December 8 the same year. That is told in the script, but in such a way as to make us believe that he’s been prisoner for only a day or two.
Severe objections. Before the second arrest, i.e. sometimes in the winter of 1940/41 Fr. Kolbe uses the expression “hecatombs of extermination camps” (p. 27) in his article. That is completely false; the term in use at that stage of the war was labor or concentration camps. The term “ext. camps” was used only after the decision for Final Solution of the Jewish problem in the beginning of 1942. Even then the term ext. or death camp was used very cautiously and unofficially in the inner SS circles. This fault was repeated on several occasions: p. 33 – a Polish should know that Oswiecim is Auschwitz, but he couldn’t have known what we know today, namely that it is the hell on earth. At that time, it is only one of many camps – not a nice perspective, but nothing that would make a man tremble. Somewhere at the end of the story, Krott says: “We start resolve the Jewish problem” in June 1941. For the reasons described it is not possible for him to say something like that.
All these problems are easily solvable: a few knocks on the keyboard and it’s done. But the harm is already done, since it is visible that the author’s knowledge on the subject matter is superficial. It stems from a book or two on Fr. Kolbe’s life, from Hollywood movies and alike, and nothing more. That’s why the problems don’t stop here, for there’s another group of them which I’d call the problems of impression. That is: how was the historical problem presented to us, how is it described? Connected with that: what is the purpose of everything told?
I’ll start with the easier, shorter remark. The life in the camp is a cliché. Not only that the SS guards are depicted as the worst guys imaginable – we’re used to it already – they are true haters of Christianity and Catholicism in particular. The impression created is that all the evil was done by the mad atheists, which is a futile simplification. Many SS guards were believers themselves, while practically all of them were Christians by origin and tradition (One of those was the commanding officer of the Auschwitz camp, himself a Catholic). And surprisingly enough, they weren’t even the sadists – read something by Hannah Arendt and her notion of the banality of evil. That is the most disturbing part of the Holocaust – it was done by the “normal” citizens, those like you and me, and not by some mad man, psychopaths, murderers etc. I’ll dare say that to present the subject in this light is the thing that makes the difference between a mediocre and a great story on Holocaust. (Next cliché is the starvation in the camp; it started in the last stage of the war, but OK).
But the greatest problem, in my view, is the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Nazism, and that’s what the Max Kolbe’s story is actually all about. And that relation was very complex. The word to describe it is “restrained enmity” or “antagonism” whose intensity changed throughout the period. I’d put it this way: Nazis viewed Catholicism as their opponent, sort of enemy but a 3rd rate enemy, and the same goes for the view that Catholicism had on Nazism. Put in the historical context, that means that those two worldviews could find a way for a compromise. In script it was noted with the agreement between Archbishop of Lvov and the Nazis. The problem is that it was placed on the shoulders of one man – the Archbishop himself, a bad guy through and through - and that blurred the stance of the entire higher Catholic clergy, i.e. that what can be called “the Catholic policy”. However, it’s true that that policy was different from country to country and that the Poles and their clergy had their reasons to oppose Germans. That makes Archbishop’s words and deeds even more sinister and treasonous, up to the point where he becomes a caricature of a merchant (like a Jew in the Nazi propaganda): “I think we can do business” (p. 14). The fact that the Catholic Church makes an agreement with the Nazis is not an accusation for Catholicism; after all, they had to find some sort of “modus vivendi” with the battle winners like the rest of the population in conquered countries. But here it is presented as though the Catholics split on two sides: the good majority and the bad individuals. It’s not that simple. And to show why it’s not simple we must go back in time, to the interwar period. Catholicism in the 20’s and 30’s becomes politically very active. We can talk about its political renaissance, and the work of Fr. Kolbe is a part of it. That activity takes an almost paranoid form in its confrontation with the “enemies” – the freemasons, the communists, the liberalism, the capitalism and, yes, even Judaism. It must be said that the Catholic anti-Semitism cannot in any way be compared with the Nazi anti-Semitism – it wasn’t based on racism or racial theory and it generally wasn’t aggressive. But there surely existed anti-Semitism among the Catholics, and the larger the Jewish community, the stronger the anti-Semitism was. So you see, there was a common ground on which the two sides could settle.
And when that is clear to us, one very important part of the story becomes a puzzle: why was Fr. Kolbe arrested? In script we’re told that the reason was the first page of Kolbe’s newspaper. An accusing part of it is read by Fr. Kolbe and the SS officer Hesse on p. 27. That part read by Kolbe is, as I’ve already explained, the invention of the author, while that read by Hesse isn’t something that would make an SS officer furious. The Nazis presented their war as the war between the good and evil, as literally the battle of idealism vs. materialism, them being the good, idealist ones, while the place of bad materialists was reserved for the communists, liberals, freemasons, Jews etc. The discourse of today is, off course, completely changed, but we’re talking about past here and not about the picture we have based on the movies and alike. And so I repeat: what was the reason for putting Fr. Kolbe in the camp?
As expected, this background couldn’t provide a soil for the characters’ development. Fritzsch is a Satan, soulless, conscious less, dehumanized sadist. What dehumanize him the most is his phone call with his family in Bavaria, moments after he cold bloodedly killed a catholic priest. Wouldn’t the thought of his children being killed by a guy like him have crossed his mind? If he’s a man, yes, but he’s not a one.
The same can be said about Krott character.
Next two characters are special ones. Francis was portrayed as a bold, cold blooded character until the moment when he asks for mercy. And that is some cowardly act. Nobody expects you to be a hero in that situation, but to make yourself look like a chicken as he did… Francis is a coward. And to be one is psychologically a grave situation, a true drama. Unfortunately, we’re left without that drama. The next days he’s back again, the good old Francis who wants to punch the Capo. Unconvincing to the core.
Pavel appears in the story rather late, and thus his character suffers from the “undeveloped character” disease. Inconsistency: he’s a devoted Catholic, but never the less commits a suicide (the sing of cross wouldn’t help you, brate), knowing that his suicide means the death for 10 of his inmates. And the way he does that…
The problem with those two characters is that they are both historical persons important for the destiny of Fr. Kolbe. His story cannot be told without those two, but then we have to be careful in reconstructing their relationship and their acts. The real Pavel probably didn’t commit suicide (which was surprisingly rare in conc. camps), but fainted and fell into the latrine. It’s either that or he wasn’t a true Catholic believer or a compassionate person. On the other hand, Fritzsch allowed Fr. Kolbe to replace Francis in the death room. He surely knows that Fr. Kolbe is a “wanna be martyr” priest, so if he’s a true sadist he’d keep him alive as long as possible in order to kill his faith, to have his soul (remember, Fritzsch is the devil). His decision shows that there’s something human in him after all. In my view, Fritzsch was an ordinary “by the book” clerk in the killing industry. “There’s room for 10. You want to replace him? OK, step in. You go out.”
But the worst character of them all is Fr. Max Kolbe. He’s a superhero, annoying bespectacled little priest praying and preaching: “Jesus loves you. I’ve a lot of love to give. Don’t hate. Peace. I love you all.” He’s like a diarrhea, constant and always the same: the world’s tumbling apart in front of his eyes, everybody breaks, hell broke lose, yet his faith is steady as a stone. Not a trace of doubt. And doubt is the drama. His confession to Francis about his wish of being the martyr – the best part of the script's dialogue – could have been the starting point in the creation of the Kolbe character, but when said by this script’s character I started cheering for the Nazis: “Go on and kill him already. Make his wish come true and end it all.” And surely this wasn’t what the author’s intended.
I’ve said too much. But let me finish: the script as it is could, eventually, be made into a European co production TV film paid by Vatican’s money. Its purpose would be to fill the gaps in the Eastern holyday TV programs and his overall appearance would be that of a cheap propaganda film, in this case a Catholic propaganda. And I hope it’s not the author’s intention. Or it can be changed and made into a compelling story about good and evil.
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