TWO PRESCIENT FILMS ABOUT THE MEMORY OF THE HOLOCAUST

Richard Brody 04/24/2017

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Leo Hurwitz’s 1948 film, “Strange Victory” (which I discuss in this clip), makes the notion of memory its very subject. Hurwitz’s idea is simple, brilliant, and painful: he compares the systematic racism that motivated the Nazi regime, which the United States had just helped to defeat, with the systematic racism that was still in force in the United States. His subject isn’t hypocrisy or even political legitimacy; it’s states of mind. His condensed and abstracted essay-like film (which runs a mere hour and eleven minutes) shows—with a collage of archival footage and press clippings, live-action hidden-camera sequences, and even dramatic reconstructions—that the state of mind that gave rise to Germany’s persecution and attempted extermination of Europe’s Jews had also spawned, and was continuing to enable, Jim Crow laws and racial and religious discrimination in the United States.

What’s more, Hurwitz—while looking in angrily practical detail at the ongoing ways and practices of American racism—also looks at Americans who are neither victims nor overt perpetrators of racism, in order to consider their own state of mind. He considers the traumas of returning veterans and suggests that they themselves have witnessed and endured ineffable horrors that—upon their return—aren’t even mitigated by the uninhibited sense of triumph, precisely because of the ongoing racism of American life. (He also considers the bitter experience of black military veterans returning home to face discrimination.) Hurwitz observes the faces of passers-by and—more than a decade ahead of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s similar investigation, in the seminal cinéma-vérité film “Chronicle of a Summer,” from 1960—considers that their open sense of bewilderment and misery is a result of their repressed and maybe even undiagnosed political contradictions. Like Rouch and Morin, Hurwitz bears witness to political neurosis from the repression of history. Yet for Hurwitz, the act of memory itself is no redemption; in the absence of drastic political change, it is, paradoxically, a further source of derangement and crisis.

A quarter century later, memory of the Holocaust was all the more repressed, and, during a time of new social conflicts, Marcel Ophüls filmed “The Memory of Justice,” centered on the postwar Nuremberg trials, their revelations, and their effect on subsequent generations. (That film, which will première today on HBO 2, in a new restoration, was nearly lost, and the story of its rescue is as dramatic as a movie.) Like Hurwitz, Ophüls filmed the very question of the memory of the Holocaust in relation to the political crises of the present time. The first part of the film, called “Nuremberg and the Germans,” focusses on denial—on the denial, at the Nuremberg trials, of responsibility on the part of officials, most of whom were in fact convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and on the ongoing denial by many Germans, at the time of the filming, of responsibility for the crimes committed by Germans under the Nazi regime. The second part, “Nuremberg and Other Places,” places accounts of the trial and punishment of Nazi officials alongside stories of the liberation of many former Nazis in the early nineteen-fifties, when West Germany was rearming to meet Soviet threats. It also discusses the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg by the United States, as well as the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the American conduct of the war in Vietnam, and the failure to prosecute high military or civil officials for war crimes; the French practice of torture in Algeria; the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee; and the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers, officials, and civic leaders by the Soviet Union, in 1940.

Ophüls’s method is that of an elaborate montage of associations and overlaps, linking archival footage with dozens of interviews that he conducts—and, occasionally, with his own presence onscreen, as when he features discussions with his wife (who is a non-Jewish German woman) and students in his 1974 seminar at Princeton University. Many of the interviews pack great emotional power, as when Ophüls speaks with relatives of young men who died fighting in Vietnam, with young Germans struggling with the country’s past, with a woman who was arrested for her involvement with the French Resistance and sent to Auschwitz. The connection of the interviews to the evidence of the historical record is sometimes illuminating and sometimes paradoxical; sometimes the past reveals present-day illusions, sometimes new recognitions shed light on old mysteries.

Ophüls is a liberal ironist whose challenging investigation of the historical record and present-day attitudes serves, especially, to undercut certainties, to foster a constructive skepticism regarding ideological verities and formulaic affirmations. His connection of the Nuremberg trials to the atrocities of Vietnam isn’t itself a facile equation (though one of his interviewees, Daniel Ellsberg, comes close to suggesting that it is), it’s a resonance, an admonition, an elegy. Ophüls is passionately devoted to recovering the memory of injustice, and there’s a hint of personal crisis that runs through the movie as well—the question, directed toward himself, of what purpose recovered memory of past horrors may serve. The movie itself suggests an answer: perhaps very little, if they don’t serve the cause of those who are trying to prevent other injustices and atrocities in the present day.

This very quality, however, is also the source of the film’s weaknesses. Driven by his own passion, his own empathy, his own sense of responsibility, Ophüls approaches his subject with a focussed precision that stays close to the subject at hand. His very subject is the development and orientation of knowledge, and he sees straight to the essence of his footage and sets its substance into motion. But even though he appears occasionally on-camera, there isn’t much of an existential or dramatic component to his own investigation. The movie’s main subject is the knowledge that’s gathered, not the process of gathering it. In showing how knowledge of the Holocaust and the trial of its perpetrators has been instrumentalized, Ophüls sometimes gives a sense of instrumentalizing that knowledge himself—as if the very notion of recovering long-overlooked information about the Holocaust was an activity that needed to be justified.

Yet that notion may have arisen from the strange and difficult circumstances under which Ophüls was working. He made “The Memory of Justice” in a virtual void, at a time when movies had done no serious investigation into the history of the Holocaust (Alain Resnais’s short film “Night and Fog” was from 1955). The very nature of his project was audacious (and his original producers actually felt that he included too much about the Holocaust in the film). Ophüls created his technique along with his research, a documentary method that was unified with a political vision—and that’s why his method (which he first developed in his 1969 film “The Sorrow and the Pity”) is indeed a method, one of the fundamental templates for modern documentary filmmaking. (Ezra Edelman’s “O. J.: Made in America” is an example of a film that’s an exemplary descendant of Ophüls’s work.)

It’s yet another irony of history that, at the very time that Ophüls made this monumental film, Claude Lanzmann was beginning work on the project that would ultimately become “Shoah.” It wasn’t completed until 1985, but it did what “The Memory of Justice” didn’t: it approached the Holocaust with an absolute directness, accepting fully the impossibility of showing the unshowable and filming the unfilmable. Deflecting historiography in quest of an impossible experience, making his own quest for that experience the very essence of the film, Lanzmann developed an aesthetic that belongs solely to the subject itself. The moderation, the curiosity, the practical political concerns that inhabit “The Memory of Justice” make it seem much nearer at hand than Lanzmann’s film, which is unassimilable, incommensurable—and definitive.

Both films, Lanzmann’s and Ophüls’s, however, stand in a crucial, albeit indirect, relationship to “Strange Victory.” Hurwitz’s fundamental connection of Holocaust consciousness with the civil rights of Americans—especially those of black Americans—is borne out by the course of historiography, especially on film. One of the essential developments of the civil-rights movement is the recovery of black history, the recognition and affirmation that there isn’t just one American mainstream and one American history but that each ethnic group has a history, and one that, for the most part, fell outside the traditional, imposed national narratives that depended on silence and lies. The readiness of Jews—both in the United States and in Europe—to face the history of the Holocaust without fear and without shame is, I think, one of the many progressive results of the American civil-rights movement. Hurwitz’s prescience isn’t only a matter of politics but of the imaginative freedom of mental life.

The New Yorker

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