It is extraordinary to me that until recently I had never heard of the 2004 German film “The Ninth Day.” It makes me wonder how many extraordinary films there are out there that never make it into North American consciousness simply because they do not have the Hollywood publicity machine at their disposal.
“The Ninth Day” is loosely based on the prison diaries of Luxembourg priest, Father Jean Bernard. It was directed by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff.
The main character in the film is Abbé Henri Kremer played with blistering intensity by the extraordinary actor Ulrich Matthes. It tells the story of the desperate struggle Kremer faces in 1942 when he is offered the opportunity to save his brother priests who are imprisoned in the living hell that was the Dachau Concentration Camp 16 kms. northwest of Munich in southern Germany.
Father Kremer’s personal struggle is portrayed against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic Church’s conflicted and confusing relationship with the Nazi regime and particularly the hotly debated question of the alleged silence of Pope Pius XII in the face of Nazi atrocities.
But at its heart “The Ninth Day” is about the tortured decision-making process of one man. It struggles with how we make decisions in a world where things are often not clear and where ethical choices are seldom straight forward.
In an interview at “Decent Films” (http://www.decentfilms.com/articles/ninthday.html) director Volker Schlöndorff speaks about the difficult process of making decisions in complex circumstances.
It is not by working through a checklist that you come to a decision. It is neither by asking your friends, family, brother, sister, your bishop if you have one, or whomso else — you can only find it within yourself. Because within yourself the decision is already made, through your character. But you just have to find it there.
In the years of Nazi reign in Germany everyone was forced to make agonizing decisions. No one made perfect choices. Certainly no one who has not faced the desperate complexity of those terrible years, can now sit in judgment on those who struggled to make the best possible decisions in the worst possible circumstances. Anyone who thinks it was easy to live through the Nazi years, needs to watch and listen carefully to “The Ninth Day.”
The best response to a film like “The Ninth Day” is to ask ourselves how we are living each day in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. How are the decisions we make today preparing us to live according to our highest and best nature tomorrow?
Volker Schlöndorff argues that ethical decision-making is not so much a matter of weighing all the options and coming up with the best possible way of proceeding. It is not a matter of consulting every possible source of guidance and then deciding between all the conflicting voices.
There are times when no choice holds out the possibility of a truly happy outcome. If we are going to avoid being paralyzed by the painful options before us, we need to listen more deeply. As we listen deeply we will discover “the decision is already made.”
Schlöndorff suggests that the wisdom we seek is found within. We may listen to many voices and seek wisdom from many sources. But, in the end, we must decide for ourselves how to proceed in the inevitable conflicts and tensions of life.
We do what we can to make the best choice possible, knowing that there is often no perfect decision. Peace comes only when we decide to live with the choices we have made and accept the consequences of those choices.