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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,

My ass hurt.

One of its producers called it

worse than useless.

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:

Movies seem to prosper in an intellectual and moral vacuum.

Rosenberg added that this particular movie

presents a dilution of the moral awfulness of the death camps and the killing of civilians and war prisoners, and it trivializes the significance of this vast organized death system by fitting pictures of corpses being dragged to pits into a rhythm of night-club performers, lush landscapes, chatter in sauna baths, and gentlemen reminiscing reflectively at their fireplaces.

Not everyone agreed. When the film first appeared in 1976, Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that it

expands the possibilities of the documentary motion picture in such a way that all future films of this sort will be compared to it….

It… marks off, explores, calls attention to, and considers, tranquilly, without making easy judgments, one of the central issues of our time: collective versus individual responsibility.

And when it was shown at a Human Rights Watch film festival in 1995, the program said,

If you can commit to seeing only one 4 1/2 hour film in your lifetime, make the necessary arrangements to see this stunning masterwork. In one courageous, lyrical tour de force, [the director] takes on the sweep of history from Nuremberg to Vietnam, exploring the questions of guilt and responsibility for the horrors of war.

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

the Oscar-winning 1961 movie Judgment at Nuremberg, whose themes are alluded to in Marcel Ophuls’s classic 1976 film on wartime atrocities, The Memory of Justice, which should be required viewing but has been lost to a broader audience.

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

an open question — but one that had to be explored.

Once he began interviewing people, he discovered that his initial caution was correct. He couldn’t follow the producers’ guidelines; he

was unable to crosscut, say, Auschwitz and Viet Nam . . . emotionally, I have found it wrong.

Instead, he presented them with a very long — and very different — film that explored in agonizing detail

the necessity of judgment, as opposed to the impossibility of judgment.

Producer David Puttnam protested:

We bought a concept, with particular stress on the interviews. We got a long, rambling personal statement, which is commercial death for us.

Ophuls countered that all they wanted was

a radical-chic version for America… [but] theatrical equations (Auschwitz-Napalm or Hitler-Nixon)… could only lead to the reinforcement of cynicism and hopelessness.

The British producers took over the film and chopped it up, simplifying its carefully constructed presentation. Time Magazine reported,

Many of his interview questions have been cut, along with footage of his family (his wife was a member of Hitler Youth) and of Germany during the Weimar Republic and later in the painful process of denazification. Also excised was a scene of middle-aged Germans, nude in a mixed sauna, discussing their feelings toward Jews. The BBC had particularly objected to the sequence on the ground that pubic hair had no place in a political film.

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,

The abuse, rising to the level of torture, of those captured and detained in the war on terror is a defining feature of the presidency of George W. Bush.

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:

The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration — by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees — lawyers — who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option.

He adds that the people behind the interrogation of detainees like Mohammed al-Qahtani

face a real risk of investigation if they set foot outside the United States. Article 4 of the torture convention criminalizes “complicity” or “participation” in torture, and the same principle governs violations of Common Article 3 [of the Geneva Convention].

He quotes a European judge who said to him,

It’s a matter of time. These things take time. And then something unexpected happens, when one of these lawyers travels to the wrong place.

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:

Plato believed that human beings were guided in the course of their brief lives in this imperfect world by the dim recollection of some previous and perfect state of the Soul, by the vague memory of Ideal Virtue and Ideal Justice.

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