May 9, 2004
Questions of guilt
It was a major film, created by a major director. And yet the producers found it so offensive that they refused to release it. An official at BBC, one of its sponsors, said after a screening,
One of its producers called it
After the director retrieved a copy and it was shown in the United States, critics like Harold Rosenberg hated it. Writing about the film in the January 20, 1977 New York Review of Books, Rosenberg quoted another filmmaker, Luis Bunuel:
Rosenberg added that this particular movie
Not everyone agreed. When the film first appeared in 1976, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that it
And when it was shown at a Human Rights Watch film festival in 1995, the program said,
The film in question: Marcel Ophuls’s Memory of Justice.
Until recently, I had never seen it. I had never even heard of it, although I was familiar with The Sorrow and the Pity, Ophuls’s classic depiction of France during World War II. It took Philippe Sands, writing about Guantanamo in the May issue of Vanity Fair, to call it to my attention.
Toward the end of his article, Sands tosses out a reference to
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I managed to turn up a copy. It turns out that The Memory of Justice is an astonishing film, with an astonishing story behind it.
In the mid-1970s, thirty years after the end of World War II, some British producers were watching with horror as the war in Vietnam unfolded. They persuaded Ophuls to make a film about the similarities between Nazi atrocities and U.S. massacres in places like My Lai. At least, that’s what the Brits wanted. Ophuls refused to be pinned down, saying that the topic was
Once he began interviewing people, he discovered that his initial caution was correct. He couldn’t follow the producers’ guidelines; he
Instead, he presented them with a very long — and very different — film that explored in agonizing detail
Producer David Puttnam protested:
Ophuls countered that all they wanted was
The British producers took over the film and chopped it up, simplifying its carefully constructed presentation. Time Magazine reported,
The story doesn’t end there.
Ophuls’s assistant managed to steal a copy of the original version and transport it to New York, where new financing was found. Ophuls restored the missing scenes. In 1976 Paramount released The Memory of Justice in the United States. And the critics went wild, one way or another.
Why does this film inspire such enthusiasm? And such hatred? For the same reasons that Philippe Sands finds it relevant now, thirty years later, when the United States is engaged in another horrifying war. It refuses to offer easy answers to difficult questions.
Sands’s Vanity Fair article and his new book, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, scheduled to be published next week, argue,
Like the prosecutors at Nuremberg in the 1940s, and like Marcel Ophuls in Memory of Justice in the 1970s, he asks who is ultimately responsible for atrocities committed in a war.
Who is guilty? No one? Everyone?
In the case of U.S. activities in Guantanamo, Sands sides with the principles set forth at Nuremberg:
He adds that the people behind the interrogation of detainees like Mohammed al-Qahtani
He quotes a European judge who said to him,
In the end, Ophuls comes out on the side of Nuremberg as well, rejecting the idea of collective guilt that was so popular at the end of World War II. But he also suggests that in our complex and all-too-human world, it is never possible to achieve true justice. Hence, the epigraph that gives the film its name:
In this imperfect world, that might be all we can hope for.
Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Monday.
— Copyright Betsey Culp 2008