|German director Volker Schlondorff told Fordham students that he is moved by characters like Joan of Arc, who have conviction that is rarely seen. The main character in his film The Ninth Day, a Catholic priest during the Holocaust, has a similarly strong conviction, he said.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Volker Schlondorff was a teenage film enthusiast at a Jesuit boarding school when he first saw images from the Holocaust. He was so disturbed that he vowed never to make a movie on the subject. All of that changed, however, when the famed German director read the script for The Ninth Day, a story about an imprisoned Catholic priest compelled to convince his bishop to align with the Nazis in exchange for his freedom from the Dachau concentration camp.
“When I read the first 10 pages [of the script], which were scenes in the camp, I knew this was what I promised I would never do and I didn’t want to read any more,” Schlondorff told students following a special screening of the film in Faculty Memorial Hall on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. He decided to read just one more page and that is when he saw the word “released,” which he said changed his conviction.
“That triggered my interest,” he said of the scene in which the priest is released from the camp and given the assignment of going to meet the bishop. “I made the moral choice to do what I had decided 50 years ago couldn’t be done. … The challenge was how to make the [Holocaust] images special to the audience and still be decent.”
Although it was inspired by the true story of a priest who kept a diary chronicling his internment during World War II, The Ninth Day, Schlondorff acknowledged, is fiction because the priest wrote only one paragraph about his release and subsequent return to the camp. In the film, the priest is given a nine-day furlough with the promise of freedom if he completes the mission. If he refuses, he will be returned to the camp, and if he tries to escape, all of the imprisoned priests will be executed.
“The story is told through a personal experience,” Schlondorff said. “I was more interested in the moral dilemma. The character has a certainty about what it is to have faith and be tempted. … This is a classic case of temptation.”
Released in Germany in November 2004, the film featured at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in April. The Fordham screening was held on April 25, during a senior values seminar titled “Films and Moral Struggle.”
“Everything we have talked about in class has led up to a film like this,” said Michael Tueth, S.J., who teaches the course. “There are moral implications in every area of life. In film, we deal not only with the content, but with how the directors, writers and actors deal with moral questions.”
In addition to this film, the class watched and discussed On the Waterfront, Casablanca, The Graduate and Dead Man Walking, among others.