It was 1976, and the Cambodian auto-genocide was in the immediate future. East Timor was already experiencing an under-publicized but no less brutal occupation by Indonesia. Yet to come were mass murders in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and more. But the bloody groundwork had already been laid by the Nazis, and it was seemingly echoed by the ruthlessness with which the French conducted themselves in Algeria and the U.S. pursued its confused goals in Vietnam.
Into this grimly chaotic picture stepped Marcel Ophuls, already acclaimed for his epic study of occupied France, “The Sorrow and the Pity” (1969), and a quietly thoughtful examination of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, “A Sense of Loss” (1972). The Vietnam War had wound down in a welter of recriminations, and it seemed the right time to confront the accusations of war crimes in that conflict.
“The Memory of Justice” proved ineluctable, a complex, nuanced and layered work that left me in tears.
The result was “The Memory of Justice,” a 278-minute rumination on the Nuremberg Trials and the principles for international conduct that those tribunals seemingly established. I was a young film critic in graduate school when the film played at the New York Film Festival, exhausted by the frustrations of anti-war activism and trying to hide from the real world in darkened movie theaters. Perhaps I was more interested in Ophuls’ father, the divine Max whose family melodramas had set a template for a proto-feminist cinema that was coming to its first flowering then. I was covering the festival and, as much from my respect for “Sorrow” as anything else, I attended the press screening.
“The Memory of Justice” proved ineluctable, a complex, nuanced and layered work that left me in tears. Despite my grad-student budget and the film’s length, I bought a ticket for the public screening and saw it a second time, with the same result.
Then the film disappeared. For over 40 years “The Memory of Justice” was not shown, the result of the film’s unusual running time and problems with lapsed rights to film clips and music cues, even as the wheels of history rotated around its major themes.
Now “The Memory of Justice” is once more available, and will be shown on HBO on April 24 in a new print restored by the Academy Film Archive and the Film Foundation.
How does it look four decades later? In a word, excellent.
The film may not have quite the impact it once did. Since “Memory” we have seen “Shoah,” Ophuls’ own “Hotel Terminus” and countless other documentaries about the Nazis’ crimes. The International Criminal Court has taken up the burden of the Nuremberg principles and has enacted stutteringly some kind of justice on behalf of the victims. But the intelligence of Ophuls’ craft and the incisiveness of the first half of the film in particular, with its relentless focus on the post-WWII search for justice rather than revenge, remain impressive, galvanizing.
Gen. Telford Taylor, one of the Nuremberg prosecutors and a key figure in the film, says of the Shoah, “It was not done by monsters” and, as if in confirmation, Ophuls returns repeatedly to the urbane, perfectly coiffed Albert Speer whose eager embrace of his own guilt is almost disconcerting. By contrast, the stubborn refusal of Karl Doenitz and other defendants in the trial seems naïve, disingenuous. When Doenitz tells Ophuls that he was only a soldier following orders, the temptation is to scream, “That’s the point, you fool.”
Ophuls was never oblivious to the larger questions of “victors’ justice,” a secondary theme of the film, including discussions of the bombing of Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. There is no shortage of witnesses on either side of those questions and 40 years and much knowledge later, one yearns to see the issues explored more fully. By comparison, the revelations of torture in Algeria and the heated debate over My Lai as a function of larger American policies seems almost an afterthought although these discussions occupy a significant portion of the film’s second half. (On the other hand, it is a useful corrective to post-Vietnam revisionism to be reminded of the courage of dissenting Army officers like Anthony Hebert, not to mention the draft resisters and deserters.)
I didn’t cry this time while watching the film. There have been ample freshets of blood and tears in the last four decades. Humankind is no less capable of demonic behavior, as even a casual perusal of the front page will show any day. Perhaps it is all an example of what Daniel Ellsberg calls “controlled stupidity.”
At any rate, it is good to be able to see “The Memory of Justice” once again.
George Robinson writes about film and music for the paper.