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TWO PRESCIENT FILMS ABOUT THE MEMORY OF THE HOLOCAUST

Richard Brody

4/24/2017 12:00:00 AM

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.

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Marcel Ophuls’s ‘Memory of Justice, ’ No Longer Just a Memory

Mike Hale

4/21/2017 12:00:00 AM

Marcel Ophuls says that “The Memory of Justice” is his best movie. This catches your attention, given that another movie he directed, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” might be the best documentary ever made.

“I think it’s the most personal and sincere work I’ve ever done,” he said recently about “The Memory of Justice,” a four­and­a­half­hour examination of war crimes and guilt from 1976 that focused on the Nuremberg trials and the Vietnam War. “And it disappeared.”

The film’s history is a drama in itself, part thriller, part tragedy. It involves an American Army base, the late­night pilfering of film canisters, a screening that left Mike Nichols in tears and a fatal review. The long final act ends in redemption at the hands of Martin Scorsese (among others) and includes the film’s long­delayed television premiere, on HBO2 on Monday, April 24.

This is the story according to the 89-­year- old Mr. Ophuls, anyway, and he tells it — by phone recently from his home in Southern France — very convincingly, with frequent bouts of wheezing laughter.

The son of Max Ophuls, the great German director of romantic melodramas (“La Ronde”), Mr. Ophuls tried fiction filmmaking with mixed results and moved into nonfiction to find work. “It all has to do with groceries,” he said. “Not so much with cinema.”

The need to put groceries on the table eventually resulted in “The Sorrow and the Pity,” the hugely influential 1971 film about collaboration in Vichy France. A few years later Mr. Ophuls learned that 50 hours of raw footage of the Nuremberg trials, shot by the United States Army Signal Corps, were stored at a Maryland base. He gained access and started viewing the reels, which had to be hand-­rolled. Every so often he broke the film, irritating his Army minders.

The documentary he made using that footage was wide­-ranging and open-ended, not just a history of the trials, though it incorporated that. Tackling the questions of national and individual culpability and guilt, Mr. Ophuls interviewed American conscientious objectors and whistle­blowers (like Daniel Ellsberg), French veterans of Algeria and many Germans, from surviving Nuremberg defendants like Albert Speer to college students born after the war. He also put himself in the movie. With his family, and again with his film students at Princeton, he discussed the documentary’s themes and posed questions to his wife, the daughter of a German veteran.

Not all of the producers, a mix of British and German backers, were happy with the results. There were complaints about the film’s length and some brief nudity, Mr. Ophuls said, and requests that more focus be put on Russian actions during World War II and American actions in Vietnam. With the editing nearly complete, an acrimonious meeting at the Ritz bar in London resulted — depending on whose account you believe — in Mr. Ophuls either being fired (his version) or walking away.

Barred from his own project, he retreated to Princeton. But then the plot turned. Two women who had worked on the film with him hid in the restroom of the London editing suite and sneaked away with a black­and­white work print of his original edit.

It made its way to New York, where supporters — including Hamilton Fish, the future publisher and social activist, then a recent Harvard graduate — screened it for other filmmakers and critics, including Frank Rich and David Denby. Mr. Denby wrote an article about the situation in 1975 for The New York Times. Mr. Nichols sat motionless for eight hours (with reel changes) and then said to Mr. Fish, ‘So what can I do?’”

With endorsements like that, and the financial backing of Paramount, Mr. Fish was able to negotiate Mr. Ophuls’s return and to see that the film was completed the way its director wished. “An injury had been done to something of great cultural and historical significance,” Mr. Fish said in a recent interview. But it had been healed.

“The Memory of Justice” played at the 1976 Cannes and New York film festivals and received good reviews, including raves from Mr. Rich in The New York Post and Vincent Canby in The Times. But Pauline Kael, a champion of “The Sorrow and the Pity” and the most influential film critic of the time, panned the documentary in The New Yorker. “Striving for complexity,” she wrote, “Ophuls extended his inquiry in so many directions he lost his subject.”

“Who else could get the people to see a five-­hour documentary?” Mr. Ophuls said. “It folded after six or seven weeks and hasn’t been heard since.”

Mr. Fish, as a producer, saw things differently — he said that for a film of its type, in the days before specialty distributors had taken off, the commercial release was successful, and he discounted the influence of Kael’s review. But he agreed that “The Memory of Justice” faded out of sight after 1976. “It just was too difficult to keep in play,” he said.

But Mr. Fish never stopped trying. He got grants, including several from Steven Spielberg, to finance efforts over the years to reintroduce the film. Finally he connected with The Film Foundation, the preservation organization whose founders include Mr. Scorsese. It spearheaded a 10-­year restoration process that has brought “The Memory of Justice” back from the dead once more.

“Tragically enough, both of the epic 20th-­century subjects tackled definitively by Ophuls, Vichy and Nuremberg, remain as pertinent, if not more pertinent, than ever,” said Mr. Rich, a former New York Times columnist who is now a creative consultant at HBO. “The restoration could not be more aptly timed, and I imagine it will come as a revelation to viewers not yet born during its first meager release.”

If enough people see “The Memory of Justice” this time, it might mean that Mr. Ophuls will no longer be known in America largely through Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” in which Alvy and Annie stand in line to see “The Sorrow and the Pity.” But if not, Mr. Ophuls won’t be too concerned.

“Oh, I love it,” he said of his indirect contribution to “Annie Hall.” “I think it’s terrifically funny. I know it more or less by heart.” And then he recited several lines of dialogue involving “The Sorrow and the Pity,” correct down to the reference to a Bloomingdale’s charge card.

“I got a letter from Woody Allen thanking me and saying that he would treat the film with great respect etc. etc., which I really didn’t ask for,” Mr. Ophuls recalled. “Who cares if the film is treated with respect? Why should it be?”

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Martin Scorsese Unspools Rare Nitrate Prints at TCM Festival

Carolyn Giardina

4/7/2017 10:00:00 AM
The Oscar-winning director also remembered Robert Osborne in his remarks.

Martin Scorsese received a standing ovation as he introduced a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much — one of four extremely rare nitrate prints that will be shown at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre during the TCM Classical Film Festival, which opened on Thursday and runs through Sunday.

“Retrofitting a theater to make it capable and safe to project nitrate is an enormous undertaking,” said the Oscar-winning director, who is also founder and chair of The Film Foundation, of the recently completed retrofit at the Egyptian. “This stock was used in the earliest days of cinema. It’s known for its deep, richer blacker and grey tones. They glow."

“But nitrate film also had a problem in that it decomposes and the bigger problem was that it blew up. It was flammable,” he said. “We are lucky to still have a few nitrate prints that have not decomposed; some are nearly 100 years old because they were stored in temperature-controlled vaults. Only a few theaters can project nitrate, so these films are rarely seen.”

During his remarks, Scorsese also remembered Robert Osborne, who passed away last month. “I don’t think there’s any better way to celebrate him [than with the festival]," Scorsese said. "He was a real lover of film, and seeing the films in the original way they were meant to be seen.”

The print of The Man Who Knew Too Much was struck in 1946 and donated to the George Eastman Museum in 1999.

The festival will additionally screen nitrate prints of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (the late Powell was married to Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been working with Scorsese to preserve his films); Otto Preminger's Laura; and Ginger Rogers musical Lady in the Dark.

"The nitrate retro-fit of the booth at the Egyptian Theatre is a natural extension of The Film Foundation's mission," said Jennifer Ahn, managing director of the Foundation. "Providing access to these treasures through the exhibition of nitrate prints is a powerful way to engage audiences and underscore the importance of protecting our cinematic heritage."

Partners in the effort also included the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, TCM, the American Cinematheque, Academy Film Archive and George Eastman Museum.

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HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS TO PRESENT RESTORED VERSION OF MARCEL OPHÜLS’ THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE

3/15/2017 12:00:00 AM

HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS TO PRESENT RESTORED VERSION OF
MARCEL OPHÜLS’ THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE
APRIL 24, HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY, ON HBO2

In a landmark cinematic and television event, the newly restored version of Oscar®-winner Marcel Ophüls’ 1976 documentary THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE will be presented MONDAY, APRIL 24 (5:00-9:45 p.m. ET/PT), Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO2. Following the film’s restoration by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation, the rarely seen epic was presented at the Berlin, Toronto and New York film festivals in 2015. This HBO2 presentation marks the world television premiere of the restored version.

The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.

THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE explores the relationship between individual and collective responsibility, as Ophüls investigates then-recent alleged war crimes committed by France in Algeria and by the U.S. in Vietnam in light of atrocities committed by the Nazis. The director was inspired by the 1970 book “Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy,” by Telford Taylor, a counsel for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials, who became a harsh critic of America’s escalating involvement in Vietnam.

Filmed 30 years after the end of World War II and the Nuremberg trials, the film draws on the unique perspectives of those who lived through the conflict and those who came of age afterward. THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE features rare archival footage and interviews with both victims and architects of atrocities, raising essential questions about the moral choices made by individuals and governments in the latter half of the 20th century that are equally relevant today.

“It seems to me that THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE, which flopped pretty badly when it first came out, is the best work I ever did in my life, or at any rate the most personal and the most sincere of my films,” says Marcel Ophüls. “Now, thanks to Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation, and with the help of my favorite studio, my favorite child has been put back into circulation as an adult. Needless to say, I’m immensely grateful!”

“THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is a monumental documentary achievement; an essential work of historic and intellectual importance,” notes Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation. “The film was unavailable for decades and, strongly encouraged by my friend Jay Cocks, the Academy and The Film Foundation undertook the nearly ten-year process of restoration. We were incredibly fortunate to have support for this project from Olivia Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation and Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.”

After years of research, The Film Foundation and the Academy Film Archive discovered an original, unlabeled, 16mm camera negative of THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE in a studio vault, and worked closely with Ophüls and producer Hamilton Fish on its restoration. Newly discovered original recordings of Ophüls’ interviews with French and German speaking interview subjects were restored and substituted for the existing English-language voiceover tracks. New subtitles in English, French and German were created for the restoration so that the participants’ own voices can now be heard, along with Ophüls’ questions.

The original film screened at the 1976 Cannes and New York Film Festivals, and was hailed by Vincent Canby as “a standard against which all other non-fiction cinema must be measured.”

THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE was written and directed by Marcel Ophüls; produced by Hamilton Fish, Ana Carrigan and Max Palevsky. Michael J. Davis served as director of photography, with editing by Inge Behrens and Marion Kraft, and sound by Paul Carr and Anthony Jackson. The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with The Film Foundation and Paramount Pictures, with restoration funding provided by The Material World Charitable Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation and The Film Foundation.

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