STAGE TO SCREEN: Costa-Gavras on "Amen"; Lloyd Webber Musicals On Screen

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Costa-Gavras on "Amen"; Lloyd Webber Musicals On Screen Costa-Gavras has prodded audiences’ consciences with powerful, unblinking political tales — parables, really — since the release of "Z" in 1969. So this soft-spoken director was a natural choice to adapt and direct Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy, a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church’s failure to respond to Nazi atrocities during World War II. The result, "Amen," opened Jan. 24 in New York and Los Angeles.

"The idea of this film is not to condemn or to say, ‘These are the bad guys,’" he says. "The idea is to try to understand why, to understand how it was possible to have so much silence in Europe."

"Amen" has two protagonists: Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a Nazi chemist who tries to alert the Western world to the existence of the gas chambers as early as 1942; and Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), a well connected Jesuit priest who joins Gerstein’s cause and tries to enlist Pope Pius XII’s help in denouncing the atrocities against Jews. (For the record, Fontana is a composite of several sympathetic priests at the time, while Gerstein was a real person.)

The depiction of Gerstein is reminiscent of Michael Frayn’s treatment of Heisenberg in Copenhagen — as the "good German" who remains within the Nazi system in order to subvert it. But if that theory was in fact true about both, Heisenberg was a far better saboteur: Germany failed to build a nuclear bomb, but the deadly Zyklon B pellets (which Gerstein developed to purify drinking water on the war front) proved devastatingly effective.

As depicted in both The Deputy and "Amen," the Vatican appears to build on the concept of deniability, with entire hierarchies existing to shield the uppermost levels of power from the truth. Much of "Amen" is about the unsuccessful efforts of Fontana and Gerstein to breach these hierarchies. Costa-Gavras bristled at my use of the word "complicity" to describe the Vatican’s actions at the time. He preferred the word "silence" instead. "For four years," he says, "[Pope] Pius XII never mentioned the words ‘Jew’ or ‘concentration camp.’ "

Hochhuth was virtually the first writer to deal with this explosive subject, and audiences initially resisted the messages within The Deputy, which ran between six and seven hours in length. When the play opened in France in 1964, Costa-Gavras says, audience members actually jumped onto the stage and attacked the actor who played Pius XII. "Amen" takes place all over Europe, unlike The Deputy, and features far more characters than the play. (Pius XII plays a much bigger role in the play.) Costa-Gavras believes firmly that filming a play almost always requires a radical reconception of the piece. "The play has its logic," he insists. "Unless you change it deeply, you should just film the stage production."

At first, this sort of mentality led to a strained relationship between him and Hochhuth: "I told him to expect the spirit of the play and not the letter. We had kind of a difficult relationship for a while, but he is now very supportive of the film.

"Rolf is an extraordinary person. He’s very passionate, and he has been hurt by this play," Costa-Gavras says. "The Catholic Church was very strong at the time. It’s a state, really. It has the apparatus of a state, and it acts with the logic of a state."

Costa-Gavras, who read several books about Gerstein and met with Gerstein’s family, says he ultimately chose to make "Amen" as a way of filling in some of the historical gaps about the Holocaust. "A lot of movies have been made about the victims," he says. "What I haven’t seen is a film about the other side, about how 40,000 to 45,000 people woke up to operate the camps, about how the state officially created an industry designed to slaughter an entire people."

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It’s not getting as much press attention as "Amen," but another major international filmmaker has brought another Holocaust-themed play to the big screen with considerable success. Frederick Wiseman is best known for pioneering documentaries that have pried open the lid on everything from "Basic Training" (1971) to "Public Housing" (1997) to last year’s "Domestic Violence." But he recently adapted a chapter of Vasily Grossman’s novel "Life and Fate" into The Last Letter, a solo stage piece for the Comedie-Francaise actress Catherine Samie, whom he had filmed in a 1996 documentary on the legendary French theatre. He also filmed her performance (sequentially, in a series of small chunks), and the shattering result is currently playing at Film Forum.

Wiseman clearly has tremendous respect for both Samie and the source material: As with his documentaries, he feels no need to juice up the emotional content or pander to the audience in any way. The ravishing Samie describes with astonishing clarity the growing number of indignities and "moral atrophy" she encounters after the Nazis invade her Ukrainian town. The film is only 61 minutes long, but Wiseman and Samie manage to stuff a phenomenal amount of anguish and poignance into those 61 minutes. Neither it nor "Amen" is easy viewing, but both are well worth the effort.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber has been content to focus on those PBS productions of his musicals and subsequent DVDs (Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, etc.) lately, but he appears to have his eye on the big screen once again. Various reports have Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Aspects of Love and even The Beautiful Game all being discussed as movie properties. Phantom is the furthest along: Webber recently reacquired the film rights from Warner Bros., and he hopes to start filming by October, possibly with Hugh Jackman or Antonio Banderas. Liz Smith floated the idea of Liza Minnelli starring as Norma Desmond in Sunset — not a bad idea — and Jeremy Sams (Indiscretions) has apparently written a usable script for an Aspects film.

The real shocker of the group is The Beautiful Game, Webber’s 2000 musical about soccer and young love set against the strife of 1970's Northern Ireland. Its U.S. exposure is largely confined to a suite of songs performed at George W. Bush’s inauguration, and it doesn’t have anywhere near the name recognition of his other titles. Its gritty setting and young cast, however, lend themselves to a relatively cheap production, and Webber plans to have Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic film "Beautiful" in Northern Ireland in October. Welcome back to the game, Sir Andrew. Just stay away from Starlight Express, please.

Webber’s not the only guy looking to move on movie musicals in this P.C. ("Post ‘Chicago’") world. Columbia, undeterred by the unsuccessful 1995 TV version, is reportedly looking into bringing Bye Bye Birdie back to the big screen. And as one eagle-eyed reader pointed out weeks ago, Vin Diesel has been discussing the idea of a modern-day Guys and Dolls with Miramax. Nicole Kidman’s name popped up as a potential Sarah. God knows I’ve been wrong before, but trust me: This will never happen. How do you put lyrics like "bromo fizz" and "Vitalis and Barbasol" into modern-day times? Are Vin and Nic willing to take pay cuts of $10 million or so each to make a big project like this economically feasible? I wouldn’t rule out a TV-movie with, say, Megan Mullally as Adelaide, but ...

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One addendum to the 2002 wrap-up in my last column: I can’t believe I forgot "Frida." And it’s not because Julie Taymor’s sophomore effort wasn’t memorable: She got terrific performances out of Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, and at least a half dozen of her tableaux belong in a museum alongside Frida Kahlo’s paintings. The overall product felt like a fairly standard biopic with a bit of Taymor oddness mixed in every 15 minutes or so, but I’ve never minded the biopic format provided the characters are interesting. And Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky and the rest of the gang certainly qualify on that score. Elliot Goldenthal’s atmospheric, haunting score won the Golden Globe, and I suspect it will snare an Oscar nomination as well.

Speaking of the Academy Awards, plenty more on that in my next column. But I’m (somewhat optimistically) predicting two or three nods for "Frida," nine or ten for "Chicago," six or seven for Stephen Daldry’s "The Hours" and three or four for Sam Mendes’s "Road to Perdition." Throw in possible writing nods for David Hare ("The Hours"), Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan ("The Quiet American") and Kenneth Lonergan ("Gangs of New York"), and it promises to be a pretty big Oscar year for theatre folk. We’ll find out on February 11, when the nominations are announced.

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A smaller set of awards — the Sundance Film Festival jury awards — were handed out in late January, and Charles Busch picked up a special acting award for his "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" homage in "Die, Mommie, Die." But Busch’s film, costarring Jason Priestley and Natasha Lyonne, apparently didn’t catch quite enough buzz in the process — "Die, Mommie, Die" still has no distributor and, therefore, no release date. One Sundance movie that does have a release date (May 9 in New York and Los Angeles) is Neil LaBute’s "The Shape of Things." The original Off-Broadway cast — Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller — returns, and audiences who grumbled about the play’s deafening Smashing Pumpkins soundtrack will be delighted to hear that the new score is by Elvis Costello, who can be just as abrasive but in a more melodic way.

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I’m just about done with my Top 10 list for 2002. Like so many moviegoers, though, I find myself taking several weeks to catch up on all the good end-of-year offerings. I’ve only got three or four to go, though, and will certainly be set by my next column.

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My Favorite Thought(s): Lots and lots of letters about "Chicago." The responses were almost exactly two parts positive to one part negative, so I’ve stuck with the ration and included three opinions — from Steve, Mike and Michael, in order:

"I agree with you that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger aren’t Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon (respectively and respectfully). I saw the original production less than a year into its run, with the original cast intact. It was incredible. But the moment that I most savor was when the doors opened beneath the bandstand and Rivera rose on the elevator to stage level during the vamp to ‘All That Jazz.’ It was electric! Imagine my thrill when the same thing happened in the movie version at the same moment. I knew at that point that the movie was in good hands. I also appreciated the fact that Marshall’s choreography could be so inventive, e.g. the women becoming the car in ‘All I Care About.’ When the lights came up again in the movie theatre, I was on Cloud 11. Thanks, Miramax, and most particularly, thanks, Rob Marshall and Bill Condon."

"I saw ‘Chicago’ yesterday on the big screen with THX, and wow! With high expectations, I have been anxiously awaiting its arrival in Indy. I think film is the proper medium for this wonderfully funny story. While I [confess] to missing the Bob Fosse dance, the transitioning between the realities and images were exactly what was missing in the stage version. Personally, I generally prefer the original stage versions for musicals, but ‘Chicago’ is the exception. The casting was surprising but right on. This movie is a must see for anyone that has ever seen a musical or the ideal introduction for those uninitiated."

"I enjoyed the film to a point. I just couldn't help feeling a self-consciousness on behalf of the creative team. I felt that they weren't confident enough in the audience's acceptance of the device of people singing and performing musical numbers. I felt that it robbed the film of much of the musical’s joy and exuberance. While I thought Catherine Zeta-Jones was totally comfortable in the material and really shone, I think that Renee Zellweger was somewhat adrift in her role. Richard Gere made a nice Billy Flynn. My major criticism, however, was the sameness of tone that all of the film had. It finally became monotonous. I was initially interested and intrigued at how each of the musical numbers commented nicely on the action of the scene (with the help of some nice editing). However, this device became predictable. While it was enjoyable to watch, I never cared about what was happening. This is certainly true of the musical as well, but the sense of fun and joy carry the show in a way this muted film wasn't able to quite pull off. I thought ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ worked best as a number (particularly with the always enjoyable Christine Baranski on hand)."

Your Thoughts: Thanks for all your letters. As "Chicago" continues to open nationwide, keep your opinions coming. Also, what are your predictions on these Andrew Lloyd Webber films? Does The Beautiful Game, a musical that never made it to New York City have a chance as a major movie musical?

—Eric Grode is a 2002-2003 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, an assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.