Film on pope's Holocaust inaction raises storm in Europe

A controversial film exploring the Vatican's inaction during the Nazi Holocaust, which hit screens in France, has caused a storm among Catholics and the media across Europe.

The movie -- titled "Amen" in most of Europe and "Eyewitness" for its yet-to-be-scheduled release in English-language markets -- has already been withdrawn from at least one cinema, and a right-wing Catholic group has attempted to ban its promotional poster, which merges a Christian cross with a Nazi swastika.

In Germany, bishops have denounced it as defamatory, while newspapers have published editorials fiercely defending it or ripping into it.

First shown at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month, the film is based on a 1963 German play, "The Representative", which highlighted one of the most notorious chapters in the history of the Catholic Church: Pope Pius XII's refusal to defend Jews or condemn their extermination during the Nazi persecution despite building proof of their fate.

Directed by Greek-born director Konstantinos Costa-Gavras, the picture recounts the efforts of Kurt Gerstein, a real-life German officer who tried to get the Vatican to denounce Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution", even as he allowed the supply of deadly gas to concentration camps.

A fictional Jesuit diplomat is added to the story to represent those Catholic priests who had attempted to intervene on behalf of persecuted Jews.

But German bishops meeting in Stuttgart last week issued a statement saying "the numerous people who, within the Catholic Church, risked and lost their lives to fight National Socialism (the Nazis) must feel posthumously scorned."

The film was an "outright defamation and a distortion of history", the statement added.

A radical Italian Catholic association, Militia Christi, echoed that criticism, asserting that Pius XII and the Church "saved 800,000 Jews, as historic studies show".

The outcry has even led to one cinema, in the chic town of Versailles just outside Paris, to withdraw the movie from its programme.

The manager told AFP he had decided "not to make a provocation" with the film, but did not rule out showing it at a later date if his clients demanded it.

The town's right-wing mayor, Etienne Pint, denied an allegation from the film's distributor, Pathe, that he had pressured the cinema manager to drop the movie.

"Those are completely false allegations. It is not a mayor's place to interfere in entertainment programmes if they obey the law," he said.

Although Catholic leaders have not attempted to block the film through the courts, one right-wing Catholic group, the General Alliance against Racism and for the Respect of the French and Christian Identity, tried to have its poster banned, claiming it was "a gratuitous, unnecessary and public assault on respectable religious feelings".

But a French court last Thursday threw out the lawsuit, deciding that the cross/swastika image -- designed by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, who made the controversial ads of AIDS victims and death-row convicts for the Benetton clothes chain -- did not imply an amalgam of Nazi and Christian beliefs.

Costa-Gavras, who attended the Paris hearing, said after the verdict: "All attention has been on the poster, and I think that might turn people off the film."

"That would be very unfortunate, because the controversy is the film itself, not a poster," he added.

French media seemed to agree Wednesday, although they were divided on which side of the debate to fall.

The left-leaning Le Monde newspaper opined that even if the events in the film dated back more than half a century, they "remain at the heart of the questions today on relations between Christians and Jews, the memory of the Holocaust, and on the role religions have to play in the world's tragedies."

The right-wing Le Figaro published a defence of Pius XII saying he admonished the Nazis and aided the Jews in his own way.

"Through thundering declarations, Pius XII preferred diplomatic and charitable action. Through gestures, effective and 'quiet' assistance," the paper said.

For its part, the Vatican has kept a low profile.

Rome has allowed partial access to its private archives from the war period although it continues to keep documents related to Pius XII locked away.