THERE ARE thorns everywhere one turns in the World War II film, "The Ninth Day," by German director Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum"), which plays more like a philosophical debate than a war drama.
That's true not just for its central character -- an anti-Nazi priest from Luxembourg given temporary reprieve from imprisonment in Dachau to persuade his bishop to issue a statement of support for Germany's anti-Semitic racial policies -- but for the audience as well.
In the end, what we're left with is feelings of hopelessness and inertia, even as we recognize why the hero must do what he does, and why it makes no difference.
Loosely based on the writings of Jean Bernard, a Catholic cleric who endured concentration-camp imprisonment for his work with the French Resistance, "The Ninth Day" is the story of Abbe Henri Kremer (Ulrich Matthes). When Kremer is unexpectedly let out of Dachau, where he has been interned for publicly opposing Nazi doctrine, he returns to his sister and brother in Luxembourg, only to discover that there's a catch to his nine-day furlough. When he makes contact with his handler, Untersturmfuhrer Gebhardt (August Diehl), a baby-faced SS officer whose theological conversations with Kremer form the structure of the film, along with camp flashbacks, the condition becomes clear: Persuade his bishop (Hilmar Thate) to break with the Vatican's anti-Nazi stance, and Kremer's freedom will be permanent. Flee, and his fellow prisoners, all members of the clergy, will be killed. Fail, and be sent back to the hell of Dachau.
The choice, to put it mildly, isn't easy. Kremer's brother (Germaine Wagner) urges him to escape and to continue working with the resistance, even though Kremer's pregnant sister has been indirectly threatened by Gebhardt. Gebhardt, himself a former seminarian, urges Kremer to save his own skin and a few others, tantalizing him with the offer that Kremer's fellow prisoners will be released if Kremer can persuade them to join the pro-Nazi bandwagon. Even the staunchly anti-Nazi bishop, who has been lying low since the Nazi occupation began, makes it clear that speaking out against Hitler will only make the crackdown against non-Aryans worse.
Speak out? Stay silent? Fight? Run away? Submit to martyrdom? Put your family at risk? Everything Kremer does or does not do affects someone, even Gebhardt, whose career is also at stake. It's a lose-lose proposition, any way you slice it.
All of which leaves the audience with nothing and no one to root for -- Kremer having been morally compromised by an episode in camp during which he withheld a few precious drops of water from a dying man.
In this sense, Matthes is perfectly cast as Kremer. With his sunken, haunted eyes, he already looks like a ghost, or like he's seen one. And he has, if you think about it, every time he looks in the mirror. Nothing he can do can set things right. Not with Gebhardt, not with the church, not with his family, his friends or himself.
Like Bernard, on whose memoirs "The Ninth Day" is based, Kremer will live to survive the war, but he is, like each one of us, a dead man walking.
THE NINTH DAY (Not rated, 90 minutes) -- Contains concentration-camp brutality and some obscenity. In German with subtitles. At the AFI Silver Theatre.