Marcel Ophuls's THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is a massive, confounding, but transfixing consideration of the definitions (or indefiniteness) of justice and responsibility in the post-Holocaust world.
The film is divided into two parts. "Part One: Nuremberg and the Germans" is a description and analysis of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, in which leaders of the Third Reich were tried for crimes against humanity. Representatives of four nations--the United States, Great Britain,
France and the USSR--presided over the trials, acting as judges and prosecutors. Throughout the film's first part, lengthy excerpts of Nuremberg trial footage are intercut with contemporary interviews conducted by Ophuls. Among those interviewed are key Nuremberg prosecutors, including Telford
Taylor, Hartley Shawcross, and Edgar Faure, of the United States, Great Britain, and France, respectively. The three relate how the trials were organized and how they proceeded. When pushed by Ophuls, they reflect on the moral obtuseness that led to the atrocities and on what qualified their
respective nations to pass judgment over the Germans. They also recall that they believed the justice served at the trials would lead towards a just world, in which nations would work together to ensure that such horrors never again occur.
Ophuls also interviews leading German figures of the Nazi era, including Albert Speer and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. While Doenitz denies knowledge of atrocities, Speer, when confronted by Ophuls with hs own statements of the time, coldly acknowledges his complicity. An American psychologist who
tested the defendants (among them Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess) is also interviewed. He describes their contempt for the trials and complete lack of remorse for their actions. In other interviews, German civilians who lived during the period, express either indifference, denial, or guilt. An
elderly fisherman expresses nostalgia for the era. A concentration camp survivor who testified at the trials recalls the shock of coming to a war-ravaged Nuremberg, and German university students debate the degree of responsibility their generation holds for past German crimes. Toward the end of
Part One, Speer states that the German people cannot be held accountable for the actions of their government.
The first section of "Part Two: Nuremberg and Other Places" concerns artists who fled Germany while the Nazis were in power, among them film director Max Ophuls, Marcel's father. The daughter of actor Franz Kortner, who returned to Germany after the war, tells of how happy her father was to come
back to his homeland, and how well received he was by the Germans.
The acceptance of Nazism by Germans is analyzed, viewed as having resulted from economic devastation and inequitable distribution of wealth. The importance of anti-Semitism in the rise of the Nazis is also examined, Speer confirming that he felt there were "problems with Jewish influence" on
Germany. Ophuls continues to press the three prosecutors on of the question of the Allies having moral authority over the Germans. In turn, he asks Taylor, Shawcross, and Faure to compare German war crimes to the American bombing of Hiroshima and involvement in Vietnam, the bombing of Dresden and
Hamburg, and torture the French military allegedly inflicted upon Algerians. Taylor admits that the comparisons have some merit but are not entirely apt. Shawcross and Faure, however, deny similarities, Shawcross declaring that the German government bears responsibility for the retaliatory bombing
of its civilian cities. Ophuls speaks with witnesses to criminal actions committed by American and French military personnel, and various interviewees, including a Vietnam War widow and draft evaders, consider the culpability of their government.
The Nuremberg trials resulted in light sentences for those convicted, as the US, Great Britain, and France recognized that some of the defendants could provide valuable intelligence about the Soviets. After serving their time, several defendants became wealthy in German industry. The camp survivor
who testified at Nuremberg recalls that when she finally glimpsed the German leaders at the trial, she was amazed that they seemed like anyone else.
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who is Jewish and chooses to play in contemporary Germany, states that torture is as international as anything else in today's world, and that everyone must work to combat universal evil, which is no longer confined to borders.
A monumental, frustrating, and often brilliant work, THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is at once a comprehensive historical text and a very personal piece of filmmaking. From the precredit sequence onward, there's no doubting that this exhaustively researched and highly informative documentary is the work of
Marcel Ophuls. Coming off the success of THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1971), Ophuls seems to have wanted to go further, to get beyond an examination of how people behave in times of crisis and into an analysis of what is learned from those times. If possible, THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is more ambitious
than THE SORROW AND THE PITY, and while it is less trenchant and probably less successful overall, it is no less remarkable an undertaking.
The cinematic equivalent of a thesis, THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE begins by putting forth the proposition that atrocities such as those committed under the Third Reich could occur again, in any place, despite the avowals from "responsible" nations at Nuremberg that they would be vigilant in preventing
such horrors from ever being repeated. In presenting his argument, Ophuls, as usual, has assembled an extraordinary selection of interviews, drawing testimony from both those who have shaped history and those who have been victimized by it. His skill as an interviewer unparalleled, Ophuls, through
his witnesses, minutely re-creates the immediate post-war era, describing in detail not only what occurred, but the moods that were felt on all sides. He qualifies his speakers' comments, confirming or casting doubt on their accuracy, either by following a comment with another speaker's dissenting
statement, or with archival footage that vouches for or flatly contradicts them.
Taken collectively, the interviews, as Ophuls has conducted and arranged them, are the basis of a compelling and reasoned analysis. In working to verify his hypothesis, Ophuls offers strong evidence that the lessons of Nuremberg have either been forgotten or ignored, or were never learned in the
first place. It is not only, he seems to say, that such presumably civilized nations as the United States and France may themselves be guilty of war crimes, but that there is an oblique (or perhaps deliberate) unwillingness on the part of governments to even consider their guilt. As Telford Taylor
explains, America "tries to attain the higher values," but Ophuls points to the My Lai Massacre, its cover-up by military officials, and the failure of the American government to properly assess responsibility or punishment as damning proof that the "higher values" America seeks have been very
arbitrarily defined, for they simultaneously permit and then explain away such outrages as My Lai.
Sometimes, Ophuls makes his points through rich irony. For example, Hartley Shawcross, who believes steadfastly that Britain had moral authority over Germany at Nuremberg, is introduced with an identifying graphic that reads, "Chief Prosecutor for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland."
Elsewhere, Ophuls elicits from Faure, while pressing him on whether he thinks that French military action in Algiers warrants a Nuremberg-like investigation, the declaration that a state should not be held responsible for the actions of some of its people--an incredible twist on Speer's statement
about the accountability of an individual under a government.
In attempting to cover such vast intellectual terrain, however, Ophuls lets the film go afield at times. Some of the interviews seem superfluous, and have the effect of diluting rather than strengthening Ophuls's speculations. Sections of the film that address events in Vietnam, for example,
include commentary from Daniel Ellsberg (of The Pentagon Papers fame) which adds virtually nothing to the intelligent discourse generated from interviews with Taylor, witnesses to American war crimes, and other people whose relevance is clear. The film also loses focus with the inclusion of
seemingly extraneous material, such as Joan Baez singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" in German, or a sequence in which a small group of contemporary Germans--among them Jews--lounge naked inside a sauna. These digressive elements unnecessarily cloud an already very complicated film.
While the density of THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE may prove frustrating, this cannot, given Ophuls's intent, be considered a flaw. Nor can the fact that Ophuls finds no concrete answers to many questions he raises. The film is undeniably ponderous at times, but one can only admire Ophuls for sacrificing
facility to intellectual integrity. In seeking to make sense of why terror continues to be inflicted in the name of imposing "principles" (as Taylor terms it), Ophuls has put together a study that is as fascinating as it is challenging. THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is persuasive as argument, and
extraordinary as filmmaking. (Extensive nudity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1976
- Rating: PG
- Review: Marcel Ophuls's THE MEMORY OF JUSTICE is a massive, confounding, but transfixing consideration of the definitions (or indefiniteness) of justice and responsibility in the post-Holocaust world. The film is divided into two parts. "Part One: Nuremberg and t… (more)