On Marcel Ophuls’ The Memory of Justice

I’m about 2/3 of the way through Marcel Ophuls’s long-lost documentary The Memory of Justice, which is now playing on HBO. I had been alerted to it by this mostly appreciative review from Ian Buruma.

If I can be permitted an opinion without having quite finished the film (that comes tonight), part of me is disappointed with what I’ve seen.

The first half covers fairly well trodden ground, without unearthing much that’s new. Much of it feels like a director being put through his paces, or a director putting his subjects through their paces.

Despite his reputation as an interviewer, Ophuls doesn’t extricate a lot from Telford Taylor that you wouldn’t know from reading Taylor’s articles and books. Or from Albert Speer, for that matter, that you didn’t know from the hundreds of interviews Speer gave or the many biographies and meditations on him. If anything, Ophuls allows Speer an even greater dignity than Speer managed to conjure for himself through all his savvy manipulation from Nuremberg to the years of his comfortable retirement upon his release from Spandau.

Which is why Buruma’s specific appreciation of that particular treatment in the film (of Speer) seems odd.

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.

As a warning and reminder in the Age of Trump, when right-minded people seem more alarmed by the president’s vulgarity than they were by Cheney’s ruthlessness, this is an important point. But as a treatment of Speer, it’s familiar territory, an easy massage hitting all the right pressure points. H.L.A. Hart wondered what was the point of writing something everyone already knew. I guess it’s because there’s always a market for it. (There’s a scene in a postwar sauna, where naked men and women are interviewed about the gas chambers, and it, too, feels a little familiar and on the nose.) Conversely, because there are many ways to state a falsehood but only one way to state a truth, Kierkergaard (at least according to Robert Paul Wolff; I’ve yet to find the original), said the truth will always be boring. So perhaps repetition is the price we pay.

That said, there are four things about the film that make it worth watching.

First, there’s documentary footage there I’ve never seen, and it can be revelatory. I’ve read many times, for example, about how Göring dominated Nuremberg. But I never really had a sense of it, till now. I’ve read many times about how Robert Jackson, despite his (justifiably) luminous reputation as a rhetorician here at home, was tongue-tied by Göring’s rhetorical mastery during the cross-examination. It’s something else to see it on screen.

Second, and relatedly, in some of his interviews, Ophuls does capture something you simply couldn’t have known merely by reading. For example, Dönitz, in his interviews on camera, exhibits not only the prickliness and the defensiveness you might expect, but also the haplessness. He defeats himself on screen—similar to what Arendt describes Eichmann doing at his trial—but which it’s hard to get a sense of, merely on the page.

Third, once you get to part 2 of the film, which deals more aggressively with how the postwar generation grappled with Nazism—there’s an extended focus on actors in Germany, both during and after the Nazi era, that’s just chilling; likewise, Ophuls’s interviews of wife, who was the daughter of a Wehrmacht officer, are almost cruel in their demand for and receipt of clarity—the documentary comes into its own. This to me is the heart of the film: the presence of the past (no surprise, given The Sorrow and the Pity.)

Last, and this is a small moment in the film, but telling. Ophuls interviews a woman in Berlin who’s quite jolly. In an unsettling way: she laughs when she shouldn’t, she seems inappropriately hail fellow well met. But at one point in the interview Ophuls asks her what it was like when the Russians came into Berlin. She says, in that jolly fashion, that she was raped. Every woman was raped, she adds. He asks her how that was or something like that (the question itself is unnerving). She says, oh, it wasn’t too terrible. But her face says otherwise: the jolliness drains out with the blood. And Ophuls, trying I think to mirror what she’s saying, says something like, well, things happen in war. As if he’s describing a summer storm. She agrees.

The reason it’s such a powerful moment is that this is the early 1970s, long before there was such an extensive literature and discourse about the Russians’ raping of women in postwar Berlin. It gives a concrete sense of how important it is to have that literature, that discourse, on a buried topic, to name things, to give them a political shape—and thereby elevate them, bring them to consciousness, as personal experience.

If I have any other thoughts on the last 1/3 of the film, I’ll let you know.

7 Comments

  1. uh...clem August 11, 2017 at 11:45 am | #

    Somehow the title of this film and your description of its contents reminded me of Hegel’s comment that the happy days in human history fill the empty pages of the history books. Shouldn’t Ophul’s film be entitled, The Memory of Injustice?

  2. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant August 11, 2017 at 11:50 am | #

    Corey, thank you for this alert. I have HBO and I am a documentarian (nope, I haven’t yet made any money at it but we’re still producing our films) so I will DEFINITELY watch this movie.

    I started to read your assessment but stopped to avoid any spoilers. I will come back to your analysis after I’ve see the movie. I might even toss in my filmmaker’s two cents worth. My only point here is to thank you for the “heads up” on this doc.

  3. Tom August 11, 2017 at 12:09 pm | #

    Thank you Corey for this series of observations.

    I saw this movie in the fall of 1977, and while some scenes remain with me, mostly I’m left with vague impressions of a subtly powerful film. Need to see it again.

    In re: The Memory of Injustice
    Ophuls begins the film with a brief reprise, in text, of Plato’s theory of human knowledge as series of not well recalled and poorly understood memories of the ideal world that we forget at birth: the imperfection of the human understanding.

  4. Corey Robin August 12, 2017 at 10:29 am | #

    Look forward to hearing all of your thoughts.

  5. Billikin August 12, 2017 at 8:40 pm | #

    “Nous sommes tous savages.”

    • Billikin August 15, 2017 at 4:14 am | #

      OC, that’s “sauvages”. Darned spell checker!

  6. Edward August 14, 2017 at 7:55 pm | #

    This is the first interview I have seen of Speer so for me that was not redundant. For the HBO audience the film might be useful or novel.

    I found a speech by Ophul about this movie that might be of interest to this blog:

    /www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUPE0LO6fZ8

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