Mr. Costa-Gavras, who was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church but now describes himself as a nonbeliever, insists that his purpose is not to attack the Roman Catholic Church as such, but rather to look at the misuse of the church's immense power. And in the absence of public access to the Vatican's still-secret wartime archives, he remains convinced by his reading and research that only moral failure can explain Pius XII's silence.
But having dealt with both right-wing and Communist repression in previous movies and even indirectly with Nazi death camps in "Music Box" (1989), he said that he still could not grasp how Europe, with 3,000 years of civilization, could have spawned the Holocaust. It was this question that led him to probe what he called "the other side" — the German side — of the genocide.
He and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Grumberg, therefore created another character crucial to the story: an SS doctor, played by theGerman actor Ulrich Mühe, who variously befriends, manipulates and threatens Gerstein. With his mixture of charm, intelligence, cruelty and cynicism, he symbolizes both the gross perversion of German civilization and the ignominious role played by many doctors in the death camps.
"Movies have usually shown the Nazis as crazy people; you know, `Heil Hitler,' the swastika, clicking heels all the time," Mr. Costa-Gavras said. "But I believe they were people like us, like everyone who becomes trapped by an extremist philosophy, like yesterday's Stalinists and some of today's Islamists. What was unique about the Nazis is that they created an industry to destroy a whole people."
Rather than portraying the Nazis as, in his words, "insane people running around screaming," he shows them going about their daily business of death, their main concern that of meeting official targets for extermination. Similarly, having decided he was incapable of recreating the true horror of the death camps, Mr. Costa-Gavras chose instead to use the constant traffic of deportation trains to convey the scale of the operation.
"It was not a hidden thing," he said. "The trains going back and forth were seen by millions, there were thousands of trains crossing Europe, everyone saw them. People were leading their normal lives and the machinery kept turning. You'd be driving through the countryside and you would stop to let a train go by."