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Forget It, Jake, It’s Metrograph’s ‘Imagining Chinatown’ Series

Daniel Maurer

8/22/2017 12:00:00 AM

After paying tribute to Fire Island, Metrograph is looking a little closer to home with its newly announced series, “Imagining Chinatown.” The series, opening Sept. 27, aims to show how Hollywood has depicted Chinatown as a “hyperbolic fantasy space,” where one “partakes in copious amounts of opium” and “crime and sin are believed to go unpunished,” per a press release.

Needless to say, Roman Polanski’s Los Angeles-set Chinatown is in the mix, as is Chinatown Nights and San Francisco-set Big Trouble in Little Chinatown. If you missed Gremlins when Anthology reunited the film’s cast or when Alamo Drafthouse busted out the Stripe tiki mugs, well then you can see that Chinatown classic as well– just steps away from where Hanksy orchestrated his “No Mogwai Sold Here” prank.

There are some less expected picks as well: Woody Allen shot part of Cafe Society in Chinatown, but it’s Alice that gets play here, since the titular character visits a Chinese herbalist. Other New York-set films include Gangs of New York and The Bowery, a 1933 film set in the Gay Nineties that Metrograph assures us “has something to offend end literally everyone.”

Here’s a look at the full lineup.

The international Chinatown, accessed through red lacquered gates bearing formidable dragon motifs, has been a vital aspect of both history and myth- making in the West for over 200 years and counting. At once a place of yearning for the far-flung homelands of an ever-growing pan-Asian population abroad and a locale onto which the West’s collective fantasy of the Orient can be projected, the exotic exteriors and supposedly mysterious, vice-ridden corridors of Chinatown have never failed to stir the imagination of Hollywood. Chinatown has been rendered as a hyperbolic fantasy space where anything—even Mogwais— can be bought and sold; where one partakes in copious amounts of opium from what a Broken Blossoms intertitle calls “the lily-tipped pipe”; where crime and sin are believed to go unpunished because the locals play by their own rules and “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown.” While far too often trafficking in insidious stereotypes, these were among the first films to create roles—albeit caricatured ones—for pioneering Chinese-American actors (when not featuring white actors). Metrograph pays tribute to the complex tradition of Chinatown on film, beginning Wednesday, September 27.

Alice (Woody Allen/1990/102 mins/35mm)
A lesser-known but wholly delightful entry from the heyday of Allen’s collaboration with the wizardly cinematographer Carlo di Palma, this magic realist spin on Alice in Wonderland stars Mia Farrow as a coddled Manhattan housewife whose tidy existence is upended when she begins to fantasize about handsome stranger Joe Mantegna. She seeks help from a Chinese herbalist, Dr. Yang (Keye Luke, Gremlins’ Mr. Wing and “Number One Son” to Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan), in Woody’s world a mystical version of an Upper West Side analyst.

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter/1986/99 mins/35mm)
Hop on the Jack Burton Pork-Chop Express! Long before Hollywood descended on Hong Kong to cannibalize its cinema, director Carpenter was attuned to the vibrations coming across the Pacific, as evidenced in his cult classic which has local boy Dennis Dun and honky buddy Kurt Russell penetrating the catacombs of San Francisco’s Chinatown to take on supernatural overlord Lo Pan. Shades of Sax Rohmer, but the joke is on Russell’s outsider, doing his best John Wayne impersonation and playing the archetypal all-American blowhard.

The Bowery (Raoul Walsh/1933/92 mins/DCP)
Wallace Beery plays Chuck Connors, the legendary self-proclaimed “White Mayor of Chinatown,” here a slovenly unprincipled oaf whose prime preoccupation is getting the better of fellow showboat Steve Brodie (George Raft). Walsh was a true democrat who loved the feisty racial jibing of city life, and appropriately his rabble-rousing pre-Code imagining of New York in the Gay Nineties has something to offend end literally everyone.

Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith/1919/90 mins/35mm)
Perhaps the most famous Chinese character in early American cinema was embodied by one Richard Barthelmess, cast against racial type as the lone friend of Lillian Gish’s poor wastrel, ceaselessly hounded by her bestial father in the slums of London’s Limehouse. Among Griffith’s best and most beautiful films, which finds the master of spectacle and sprawl forgetting his epic ambitions to work with rare delicacy and emotional intimacy.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski/1974/130 mins/35mm)
“Chinatown” doesn’t play a major role in Polanski’s film of dirty dealing in 1930s Los Angeles, but it does a whole lot of metaphorical heavy lifting in the film’s famous kicker line, symbolic of a place where the rules and the language are beyond comprehension. We might mention that it’s a masterpiece, too, with Faye Dunaway as the woman in trouble, Jack Nicholson as nosey guy detective Jake Gittes, and John Huston as the vilest plutocrat in all of cinema.

Chinatown Nights (William Wellman/1929/83 mins/35mm)
Four years before The Bowery, Wallace Beery played another uncouth variation on his “White Mayor of Chinatown,” here named Chuck Riley, in this pre-Code rabble-rouser (a/k/a Tong War) for hell-raising director “Wild Bill” Wellman. With the omnipresent Oland as the overboss of a sinister, opium smoke-wreathed Chinatown which tempts white rubberneckers like society gal Florence Vidor to come downtown, and a show-stopping shootout at a Chinese theatre.

Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese/2002/207 mins/35mm)
Fired by the spirits of Sam Fuller, Sergio Leone, and Walsh’s The Bowery, Scorsese drew from Herbert Asbery’s collection of underworld folklore to produce this rip-snorting epic of love and revenge in the time of the Draft Riots, with Daniel Day-Lewis as nativist Know-Nothing strongman Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Leonardo DiCaprio as his sworn foe. For the shoot, Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti built their own Five Points at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, including a cavernous Chinatown club—this despite the fact that 1864 Manhattan lacked a large Chinese population.

Gremlins (Joe Dante/1984/106 mins/35mm)
In American popular cinema, Chinatown has always been the place to go to find strange and exotic items, items such as—a pet mogwai? (That’s Cantonese for “monster,” by the way.) Joe Dante’s black-comic horror romp starts innocently enough, but when Gizmo’s new owners don’t heed the sage advice of Mr. Wing, there’s hell to pay for the residents of the little hamlet of Kingston Falls—and their Christmas decorations.

Jade (William Friedkin/1995/95 mins/35mm)
A wild car chase through a Chinatown parade is the identifiable high-point of this sleazy-sexy little number courtesy Friedkin, who knows a thing or two about vehicular chaos, here contributing to the erotic thriller craze by way of a screenplay from subgenre godfather Joe Eszterhas. San Francisco detective David Caruso’s investigation of a millionaire’s murder puts him on the trail of a mysterious prostitute called “Jade,” who may or may not be lovely Linda Fiorentino, last to see the victim alive.

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone/1984/229 mins/35mm)
Leone, known best for his sprawling Westerns, took on another distinctly American genre at the end of his career—the gangster picture. Moving back and forth along a timeline that spans from Prohibition to the late ‘60s, Leone’s rich, sad film, which manages to evoke both Proust and Fitzgerald, follows the character of Robert De Niro’s gangster Noodles from rags to riches and back again, as he considers his life from a palette in a Chinatown opium den—or is it all just a hop-head dream?
Restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in association with Andrea Leone Films, The Film Foundation, and Regency Enterprises. Restoration funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation.

Outside the Law (Tod Browning/1930/70 mins/35mm)
Browning, lover and discoverer of Anna May Wong, here auto-remakes a title he first touched in 1920, starring Edward G. Robinson (before his Little Caesar break) as Cobra Collins, an aristocrat of the underworld who sets his eyes on tableaux vivant model Mary Nolan, who can’t disguise her disgust when she learns that Cobra has a Chinese mother. After an opening full of patented Browning grotesquerie, Outside the Law settles into a surprisingly sweet story about the vicissitudes of domestic life.

Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino/1985/134 mins/35mm)
After years in the wilderness post-Heaven’s Gate, director Cimino came barreling back with this passionate policier, which finds Polish Greenpoint-raised cop Mickey Rourke pounding a new beat, trying to clean up a gang-ridden NYC Chinatown run by suave crime kingpin John Lone. Vigorously protested at the time of its release, it stands today as a showcase for Cimino’s rich, baroque style, a vintage neighborhood snapshot, and the only movie whose closing credits roll over curtain call film of Teresa Teng singing “Tian Mi Mi.”

“Anna May Wong: Empress of Chinatown” Begins October 7

Born in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Anna May Wong’s early days of working for her father’s laundry made her meticulous about dressing. Since her father wanted a boy, she watched her sister wear masculine clothes to appease him, and this would in time inspire her androgynous onscreen presence, a quality she shared with Marlene Dietrich, with whom she would be glamorously paired in Josef Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express. Thanks to her preternatural beauty, Wong was modeling fur coats by the age of ten, and by the time she was a teenager she had broken into the movie business—not a time exceedingly receptive to screen testing Asian faces. Throughout her career Wong would bridle at the exoticized roles she was handed, even taking o for Europe when Hollywood disappointed her, but she approached every lm with incredible grace and dignity, and what remains of her through the years is a seductive, incredibly chic, and startlingly modern screen presence. Titles include Toll of the Sea (Chester M. Franklin), Old San Francisco (Alan Crosland), Daughter of the Dragon (Lloyd Corrigan), Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg), and Anna May Wong Visits Shanghai, a newsreel restored by UCLA, all in 35mm.

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Night of the Living Dead 4K Restoration Opens in New York this October

Chris Alexander

8/16/2017 12:00:00 AM

New York’s Film Forum to screen Night of the Living Dead 4K restoration this October

Due to a copyright snafu with its distributor, George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead lapsed into what was presumed to be the public domain, with every pirate alive then bootlegging and distributing poor quality versions of the film all over the world. Now, Janus Films will unleash NOTLD’s first-ever major restoration, opening on October 13 at New York’s Film Forum, followed by a national rollout. No more dump-bin, skid-row dupes of this groundbreaking 1968 classic ever again, thanks…

Shot outside of Pittsburgh at a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood feature by a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark, Romero’s masterpiece is one of the great stories of independent cinema: an ultra low-budget midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of flesh-eating ghouls newly arisen from their graves, Romero’s claustrophobic vision of a late-sixties America (literally) tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combined gruesome gore with acute social commentary, and quietly broke ground by casting a black actor (Duane Jones) in the lead role. Now, you can finally see this immaculately-crafted film in glorious, monochrome shape, thanks to a new 4K restoration, scanned from the original camera negative and supervised by Romero himself. Stark, haunting, and more relevant than ever, Night of the Living Dead is back.

Night of the Living Dead was restored by The Museum of Modern Art and The Film Foundation. Funding was provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation and the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. The restoration was overseen by George A. Romero and Image Ten — most especially, Gary Streiner, Russ Streiner, and John Russo — with restoration work done by Cineric Inc, NYC, and Audio Mechanics, Burbank, CA.

We can’t wait to see this film on the big screen in this sort of superlative shape. How about you?

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Martin Scorsese's plan to archive Africa's cinematic treasure

Nadia Neophytou

8/13/2017 12:00:00 AM

The legendary director has teamed up with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and Unesco to restore and preserve our continent's cinema

Almost 50 years ago, in a New York City cinema, Martin Scorsese went to see La Noire de... (titled Black Girl in English), a film by the grandfather of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène. The film about a young woman who leaves her home in Senegal to work as a servant in France left an impression on the director, then in his 20s, and introduced him to another kind of cinema.

"It had such an impact on me. It was so haunting, so ferocious," he said. "A door had opened in the West, and for the first time, we could feel a truly African voice in the cinema."

We know very little about African cinema, and that what we do know is still filtered through our own narrative and our own reference points
Director Martin Scorsese

The legendary director, in partnership with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and Unesco, is now trying to fling that door open wider with the launch of an initiative to restore and preserve films from Africa, the African Film Heritage Project.

"I'm aware now more than ever that we know very little about African cinema, and that what we do know is still filtered through our own narrative and our own reference points," Scorsese said.

About 50 films are being earmarked for restoration and are to be shared with film fans in Africa and the rest of the world. The first of them, Soleil Ô, was made in 1970 and showed at the Cannes film festival this year. The work of Mauritanian director Med Hondo, it shares much in common with the recent Oscar-nominated documentary on writer James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.

Soleil Ô tracks the story of a black immigrant who attempts to find work in Paris and highlights issues of race, discrimination and colonialism.

Aboubakar Sanogo, North American regional secretary of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers, said it was "imperative" for the continent's filmmakers to be in touch with the pulse of the times.

"All the challenges and issues Hondo identified in the '70s are still relevant now ... We are in the era of the immigrant, and that is what Hondo's film speaks to. We are far from solving all the challenges and issues Soleil Ô identified, in a contemporary setting.

"[The film] spans the test of time, making it relevant beyond its location. It's a gift from Africa to the rest of the world that can and should be shared with the rest of the world."

The process of deciding which African films will be restored as part of the project is still under way, but it is hoped that over the next two years five films, including Soleil Ô, will have been preserved.

 

7 MUST-SEE AFRICAN MOVIES

1. LA NOIRE DE ... (BLACK GIRL)

The first feature film from Africa's godfather of cinema, Ousmane Sembène, centres on Diana, a young Senegalese woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work for a rich French couple.

TSOTSI

Directed by Gavin Hood and adapted from Athol Fugard's book, it won South Africa's first Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

WATCH the trailer for Tsotsi

2. FINYE (THE WIND)

Photographer-turned-director Souleymane Cissé tells the story of a love affair between two teenagers, illuminating the clash between ideas of modernity and tradition.

3. DISTRICT 9

Neill Blomkamp's Joburg-set low-budget film made the movie world sit up, earning four Oscar nominations and a place on Spike Lee's list of essential movies for directors to watch.

4. RESTLESS CITY

Lagos-born Andrew Dosunmu's take on the American dream, from the point of view of New York's West African immigrant community.

5. TOUKI BOUKI

Widely considered one of the most important African films ever made. Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty was influenced in part by the French New Wave, but based the 1973 film on his own fantasy-drama script and black and white style.

WATCH Martin Scorsese introduce Senegalese film Touki Bouki

6. SOLEIL Ô (OH SUN)

A pillar of African cinema, Med Hondo used a documentary-fiction style that shines in this look at neo-colonialism.

7. TIMBUKTU

Abderrahmane Sissako's 2014 insightful drama is lauded for its breathtaking images, as it teeters between hope and despair, showing how Mali's people have been traumatised by war. 

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Fools, Cowards, or Criminals?

Ian Buruma

8/9/2017 12:00:00 AM

The Memory of Justice a documentary film directed by Marcel Ophuls, restored by the Academy Film Archive in association with Paramount Pictures and the Film Foundation available on HBO

 

1.

The main Nuremberg war crimes trials began in November 1945 and continued until October 1946. Rebecca West, who reported on the painfully slow proceedings for The New Yorker, described the courtroom as a “citadel of boredom.” But there were moments of drama: Hermann Göring under cross-examination running rings around the chief US prosecutor Robert H. Jackson, for example. Jackson’s opening statement, however, provided the trial’s most famous words:

We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity to our task that this Trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity’s aspirations to do justice.

How well humanity lived up to these words, after a good number of bloody conflicts involving some of the same powers that sat in judgment on the Nazi leaders, is the subject of The Memory of Justice, the four-and-a-half-hour documentary that has rarely been seen since 1976 but is considered by its director, Marcel Ophuls, to be his best—even better, perhaps, than his more famous The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), about the Nazi occupation of France, the Vichy government, and the French Resistance.

Near the beginning of The Memory of Justice, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin declares that the barbarism of Nazi Germany can only be seen as a universal moral catastrophe: “I proceed from the assumption that every human being is guilty.” The fact that it happened in Germany, he says, doesn’t mean that it cannot happen elsewhere. This statement comes just after we have seen the Nazi leaders, one after the other, declare their innocence in the Nuremberg courtroom.

We also hear a former French paratrooper recall how the French in Algeria systematically tortured and murdered men, women, and children. There are gruesome images of the Vietnam War. And Telford Taylor, US counsel for the prosecution at Nuremberg, wonders how any of us would cope with the “degeneration of standards under pressures.” Later in the film, Taylor says that his views on Americans and American history have changed more than his views on the Germans whom he once judged.

Such juxtapositions are enough to send some people into a fury. The art critic Harold Rosenberg accused Ophuls in these pages of being “lured…into a near-nihilistic bog in which no one is guilty, because all are guilty and there is no one who is morally qualified to judge.”1 Ophuls, according to Rosenberg, “trivialized” the Nazi crimes and “diluted” the moral awfulness of the death camps.

This is to misunderstand what Ophuls was up to. The film never suggests that Auschwitz and the My Lai massacre, or French torture prisons in Algiers, are equivalent, let alone that the Vietnam War was a criminal enterprise on the same level as the Holocaust. Nor does Ophuls doubt that the judgment on Göring and his gang at Nuremberg was justified. Ophuls himself was a refugee from the Nazis, forced to leave Germany in 1933, and to flee again when France was invaded in 1940. Instead he tries, dispassionately and sometimes with touches of sardonic humor, to complicate the problem of moral judgment. What makes human beings who are normally unexceptional commit atrocities under abnormal circumstances? What if such crimes are committed by our fellow citizens in the name of our own country? How does our commitment to justice appear today in the light of the judgments at Nuremberg? Will the memory of justice, as Plato assumed, make us strive to do better?

Ophuls does not dilute the monstrosity of Nazi crimes at all. But he refuses to simply regard the perpetrators as monsters. “Belief in the Nazis as monsters,” he once said, “is a form of complacency.” This reminds me of something the controversial German novelist Martin Walser once said about the Auschwitz trials held in Frankfurt in the 1960s. He wasn’t against them. But he argued that the daily horror stories in the popular German press about the grotesque tortures inflicted by Nazi butchers made it easier for ordinary Germans to distance themselves from these crimes and the regime that made them happen. Who could possibly identify with such brutes? If only monsters were responsible for the Holocaust and other mass murders, there would never be any need for the rest of us to look in the mirror.

It is true that Ophuls does not interview former Nazis, such as Albert Speer and Admiral Karl Dönitz, as a prosecutor. His role is not to indict, but to understand better what motivates such men, especially men (and women) who seem otherwise quite civilized. For this, too, Rosenberg condemned him, arguing that he should have balanced the views voiced by these criminals with those of their victims, for otherwise viewers might give the old rogues the benefit of the doubt.

There seems to be little danger of that. Consider Dönitz, for example, who makes the bizarre statement that he could not have been anti-Semitic, since he never discriminated against Jews in the German navy, forgetting for a moment that there were no known Jews in Hitler’s Kriegsmarine. When Ophuls asks him whether he really believes that there was no connection between his ferociously anti-Semitic speeches and the fate of the Jews under the government he served, the admiral’s tight little mouth twitches alarmingly before denying everything in the harsh yelp of a cornered dog. This speaks for itself, and needs no “balancing” by another voice.

Ophuls is a superb interviewer, polite, cool, and relentless. His tone is often skeptical, but never moralistic or aggressive. This allows him to get people to say things they may not have divulged to a more confrontational interlocutor. Albert Speer was responsible for, among other things, the ghastly fate of countless slave laborers pulled from concentration camps to work in German armaments factories. Responding to Ophuls’s quiet probing, this most slippery of customers speaks at length about the moral blindness and criminal opportunism that came from his ruthless ambition. Unlike most Germans of his generation, Speer believed that the Nuremberg trials were justified. But then, he could be said to have got off rather lightly with a prison sentence rather than being hanged.

Where Dönitz is shrill and defensive, Speer is smooth, even charming. This almost certainly saved his life. Telford Taylor believed that Speer should have been hanged, according to the evidence and criteria of Nuremberg. Julius Streicher was executed for being a vile anti-Semitic propagandist, even though he never had anything like the power of Speer. But he was an uncouth, bullet-headed ruffian, described by Rebecca West as “a dirty old man of the sort that gives trouble in parks,” a man one could easily regard as a monster. The judges warmed to Speer as a kind of relief. Compared to Streicher, the vulgar, strutting Göring, the pompous martinet General Alfred Jodl, or the hulking SS chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Speer was a gentleman. What saved him, Taylor recalls in the film, was his superior class. When Ophuls puts this to him, a ghostly smile flits across Speer’s face: “If that’s the explanation…, then I am only too pleased I made such a good impression.” In the event, Speer got twenty years; Dönitz only got ten.

Ophuls said in an interview that it was easy to like Speer. But there is no suggestion that this mitigated his guilt. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who also interviewed Speer at length, called him “the true criminal of Nazi Germany,” precisely because he was clearly not a sadistic brute but a highly educated, well-mannered, “normal” human being who should have known better than to be part of a murderous regime. This is perhaps the main point of Ophuls’s film as well: there was nothing special about the Germans that predisposed them to become killers or, more often, to look away when the killings were done. There is no such thing as a criminal people. A quiet-spoken young architect can end up with more blood on his hands than a Jew-baiting thug. This, I think, is what Yehudi Menuhin meant by his warning that it could happen anywhere.

2.

Far from being a moral nihilist who trivialized the Nazi crimes, Ophuls was so committed to his examination of guilt and justice that The Memory of Justice had a narrow escape from oblivion. The companies that commissioned it, including the BBC, did not like the rough cut. They thought it was far too long. Since the film was to be based on Telford Taylor’s book Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (1970), they wanted more on the Vietnam War and less on Nuremberg. Rejection only made Ophuls, who never took kindly to being told what to do by the men in suits, stick more stubbornly to his own vision. He was less interested in a specifically American tragedy, or indeed a German tragedy, than in man’s descent into barbarousness, wherever or whenever it happens.

Ophuls was locked out of the cutting room in London. The producers put together a shorter version of the film, with a different spin, which was sold to ZDF television in Germany. Ophuls then traveled all over Europe to save his own version. A German court stopped ZDF from showing the shorter one. The original edit was smuggled to the US, where a private screening reduced Mike Nichols to tears. Hamilton Fish, later a well-known publisher, managed to persuade a group of investors to buy the original movie back and Paramount to distribute it. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, and then in New York and on college campuses, as well as on television in many countries. But for the cussed perseverance of Ophuls and the help of his American backers, The Memory of Justice would never have been seen. In Fish’s words, “You needed his type of personality to make such a film. He took history on personally.”

After its initial run, however, the movie disappeared. Contracts on archival rights ran out. The film stock was in danger of deteriorating. And so a documentary masterpiece could easily have been lost if Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation had not stepped in with Paramount to put it all back together again, a labor that took ten years and was completed in 2015.

Much has changed, of course, since 1976. Germany is a different country now, geographically, politically, and culturally. When Ophuls talked to Dönitz, the West German establishment was still riddled with former Nazis. Most of the wartime generation masked their dirty secrets with evasions or shabby justifications. The history of the Third Reich, in the words of Eugen Kogon, a Holocaust survivor and the first German historian to write about the camps, was still “the corpse in the cellar.”

Quite ordinary people, like the smiling man encountered by Ophuls in a small town in Schleswig-Holstein, still remembered the Third Reich with great fondness as an orderly time when people knew how to behave and there was “no problem of crime.” Ophuls happened to meet this friendly burgher while he was trying to track down a female doctor who had been convicted at Nuremberg for murdering children in concentration camps by injecting oil into their veins, to name just one of her grisly experiments. After she was released from prison in 1952, she continued for a time to practice as a family doctor. She was, it appears, well respected, even friendly.

When Ophuls finally managed to find her, she very politely declined to be interviewed, since she was in poor health. Another former concentration camp doctor, Gerhard Rose, did agree to talk, however, but only to deny any guilt, claiming that his medical experiments (infecting victims with malaria, for example) served a humanitarian purpose, and that the US Army performed experiments too. Ophuls observes, quite rightly, that American experiments were hardly conducted under the kind of circumstances prevailing in Dachau and Buchenwald. But the hypocrisy of the Western Allies in this matter might have been better illustrated by pointing out that German and Japanese doctors who committed even worse crimes than Dr. Rose were protected by the US government because their knowledge might come in handy during the cold war.2

Perhaps the most disturbing interview in the movie is not with an unrepentant Nazi or a war criminal, but with the gentlemanly and highly esteemed lawyer Otto Kranzbühler. A navy judge during the war, Kranzbühler was defense counsel for Admiral Dönitz at Nuremberg, where he cut a dashing figure in his navy uniform. He later had a successful career as a corporate lawyer, after defending the likes of Alfried Krupp against accusations of having exploited slave labor. Kranzbühler never justified Nazism. But when asked by Ophuls whether he had discussed his own part in the Third Reich with his children, he replied that he had come up with a formula to make them understand: if you were ignorant of what went on, you were a fool; if you knew, but looked the other way, you were a coward; if you knew, and took part, you were a criminal. Were his children reassured? Kranzbühler: “My children didn’t recognize their father in any of the above.”

It was a brilliant evasion. But Kranzbühler was no more evasive than the French prosecutor at Nuremberg, the equally urbane Edgar Faure, who had been a member of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. Ophuls asked him about French war crimes during the Algerian War of Independence, when torture was systematically applied, civilians were massacred, and prisoners were thrown out of helicopters, a practice that later became widespread under South American military regimes. “Well,” said Faure, “events do get out of hand. But you can’t really criticize politicians who have the difficult task of running the government.” Edgar Faure was prime minister of France during part of that war.

The 1970s were a critical time in Germany. There were still people, like the son of the former Waffen SS officer interviewed by Ophuls, who believed that the Nazi death camps were a lie, and it was the Americans who built the gas chambers in concentration camps. But the postwar generation had begun to question their parents amid the student revolts of the 1960s. Just a year after The Memory of Justice was completed, radicalism in Germany turned toxic, when members of the Red Army Faction murdered bankers, kidnapped industrialists, and hijacked planes, all in the name of antifascism, as though to make up for their parents’ complicity with the Nazis.

German families were torn apart by memories of the war. Ophuls includes his own not uncomplicated family in the film. His German wife, Regine, the daughter of a Wehrmacht veteran, speaks openly to American students about her own childhood under the Nazis. One of their teenaged daughters talks about the need to come to terms with the past, even though their mother finds seventeen a little too young to be confronted with images of concentration camps. Then Regine says something personal that cuts to the core of her husband’s life and work. She wishes sometimes that Ophuls would make films that were not about such dark matters. What kind of films? he asks. Lubitsch films, she replies, or My Fair Lady all over again. We then hear Cyd Charisse singing “New Sun in the Sky” from The Band Wagon (1953), while watching Ophuls in a car on his way to find the doctor who murdered children in concentration camps.

This is typical of the Ophuls touch, show tunes evoking happier times overlapping with memories of horror. The motive is not to pile on cheap irony, but to bring in a note of autobiography. His father was Max Ophuls, the great director of Liebelei (1933), La Ronde (1950), and Lola Montès (1955). Max was one of the geniuses of the exile cinema. Memories of a sweeter life in imperial Vienna or nineteenth-century France are darkened in his films by a sense of betrayal and perverse sexuality.

Nostalgia for better days haunted his son, who spent his youth on the run from terror with a father whose genius he always felt he couldn’t live up to. He would have loved to direct movies like La Ronde. Instead he made great documentary films about the past that won’t let him go, about Vichy France, or Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo butcher of Lyon, or Nuremberg. The true horror stories are mixed in all his work, as in a collage, with songs from pre-war Berlin music halls and Hollywood movies.

One of the most unforgettable examples of the Ophuls touch is a scene in a film that has almost never been viewed (another bitter fight with producers). November Days (1991) is about the fall of the Berlin wall. One of the people he interviews is Markus Wolf, the former East German spy chief, whose father, the Communist writer Friedrich Wolf, had known Max Ophuls in pre-war Berlin. While Markus dodges every question about his past with blatant lies, we hear music from one of Max’s movies slowly swell on the soundtrack as Marcel thinks out loud to himself how lucky he was that his father decided to move west instead of east.

3.

In the second half of The Memory of Justice, the focus shifts from east to west, as it were, from Germany to France and the US. Daniel Ellsberg, speaking of Vietnam, says that “this war will cause us to be monstrous.” We hear stories from men who were there of American soldiers murdering civilians in cold blood. We hear a Vietnam veteran talk about being told to shut up by his superiors when he reports a massacre of civilians ordered by his commanding officer. We hear Ellsberg say that no one higher than a lieutenant was ever convicted for the mass killing of Vietnamese civilians by US soldiers in My Lai.

On the French side, stories about summary executions and the use of torture during the Algerian War (1954–1962) are followed by a crucial question put by Ophuls to Edgar Faure, the former Nuremberg prosecutor and later prime minister of France: Did he, Edgar Faure, think the French would have accepted an international commission that would judge, on the basis of Nuremberg, what the French did in Algeria? No, said Faure, after a pensive suck on his pipe, since one cannot compare the invasion of another country to the actions taken by a sovereign state in its own colony.

Sir Hartley Shawcross, the British prosecutor at Nuremberg, speaking to Ophuls in his elegant country house in Sussex, remembers how much his American colleagues had believed in justice and the rule of law. Like other British officials at the time, he took a more cynical view: “All law is created by the victors for the vanquished.” What mattered in his opinion, however, was not who made the laws, but whether the principles were right. About this he had little doubt.

Looking back, Otto Kranzbühler shared Shawcross’s memory of American idealism. But he believed that as a model for the future, Nuremberg had been a failure. The trial, as he saw it, presupposed a united world community in which wars would be a thing of the past. This illusion did not last long.

In fact, the trial was tainted from the beginning, not only because among the men who judged the Nazi leaders were Soviet veterans of Stalin’s bloody show trials, but also because Allied war crimes could not even be mentioned. A former British officer involved in the wartime bomber command had no doubt that the destruction of Dresden was a war crime.

If The Memory of Justice has a weakness, it is that this second half of the film, concentrating on French and American war crimes, is not quite as gripping as the first half about the German legacy of Nuremberg. Perhaps Ophuls’s heart was not in it to the same extent. Or perhaps no matter what one thinks of My Lai or Algiers, they are overshadowed by the sheer scale and savagery of the Nazi crimes.

Then again, pace Rosenberg, Ophuls doesn’t suggest that they are equivalent. What is comparable is the way people look away from, or justify, or deny what is done in their name, or under their watch. The wife of a US marine who died in Vietnam, living in a house stuffed with flags and military memorabilia, simply refuses to entertain the idea that her country could ever do anything wrong. More interesting, and perhaps more damning, is the statement by John Kenneth Galbraith, an impeccably liberal former diplomat and economist. His view of the Vietnam War, he tells Ophuls, had been entirely practical, without any consideration of moral implications.

Vietnam was not the Eastern Front in 1943. My Lai was not Auschwitz. And Galbraith was certainly no Albert Speer. Nevertheless, this technocratic view of violent conflict is precisely what leads many people so far astray under a criminal regime. In the film, Ellsberg describes the tunnel vision of Speer as “controlled stupidity,” the refusal to see the consequences of what one does and stands for.

This brings to mind another brilliant documentary about controlled stupidity, Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003), featuring Robert McNamara, the technocrat behind the annihilation of Japanese cities in World War II and the escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. To him, the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was a mathematical problem. Only many years later did he admit that if the US had lost World War II, he could certainly have been indicted as a war criminal.

Even more chilling is another documentary by Morris, which received less attention than The Fog of War. In The Unknown Known (2013), we see Donald Rumsfeld, another gentlemanly technocrat, shrug his shoulders about Vietnam, commenting that “sometimes things just don’t work out.” When, as the result of another war in which he was even more intimately involved, Baghdad was convulsed in anarchic violence, he notoriously remarked that “stuff happens.” This is what Hannah Arendt called a “criminal lack of imagination.”

Perhaps the US in 1945 set its ideals too high. But it is a tragedy that the same country that believed in international law, and did so much to establish the norms of justice, has done so little to live up to them. The US is not even a signatory to the International Criminal Court, a flawed institution like the Nuremberg tribunal, but a necessary step in the right direction. No one can hold the greatest military power on earth accountable for what it does, not for torture rooms in Abu Ghraib, not for locking people up indefinitely without trial, not for murdering civilians with drones.

For Germans living under the Third Reich it was risky to imagine too well what their rulers were doing. To protest was positively dangerous. This is not yet true for those of us living in the age of Trump, when the president of the US openly condones torture and applauds thugs for beating up people at his rallies. We need films like this masterpiece by Ophuls more than ever to remind us of what happens when even the memories of justice fade away.

AUGUST 17, 2017 ISSUE

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