Commentary Magazine

The Memory of Justice

To the Editor:

One of the few advantages a four-and-a-half-hour film like The Memory of Justice has for a general audience, containing as it does forty-five separate interviews, is that, sooner or later, almost any spectator with enough patience is likely to find a spokesman or spokeswoman for his or her point of view.

It should be duly noted that Dorothy Rabinowitz, in her article, “Ophuls: Justice Misremembered” [December 1976], explicitly and almost joyously welcomes Lord Shawcross as her spokesman. Lord Hartley Shawcross was Chief British Prosecutor before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. Today, he thinks that the Germans deserved just what they got in Dresden (and he says so in the film). He also expresses the view, vigorously and manfully, that the Americans should have gone “all out” to win the war in Vietnam. I rather like and admire Lord Shawcross for his bluntness and his honesty. However, I think that Miss Rabinowitz’s review of The Memory of Justice should be read in the light of her choice as spokesman in the film.

She disapproves, by contrast, of Telford Taylor, the American prosecutor, because the latter chooses to view the Nuremberg principle in the light of subsequent events, because he is willing to scrutinize his own motivations, his own role in history, because he is willing to question his own country’s behavior. This, the critic feels, is waffling! This lacks vigor and simplicity! This teaches us more about penguins than we care to know!

She also disapproves of Daniel Ellsberg’s statement that the My Lai massacre is comparable to any “field incident” in World War II. She cites the phrase, putting it, quite properly, in quotation marks, although clearly more for purposes of irony than for direct quotation. But all she succeeds in doing is to demonstrate Daniel Ellsberg’s affinity for precise definitions, to the detriment of her own. Mr. Ellsberg, in the interview, is not comparing My Lai to organized mass genocide in Auschwitz, nor to the murderously planned activities of the Einsatzgruppen behind the Russian front. He is speaking of field incidents. His thought, on this as on many occasions, is both clear and accurately conveyed. Accusations of inaccuracy should, whenever possible, be accurate.

There are other inaccuracies in “Ophuls: Justice Misremembered” which, especially with due regard for the article’s title, I find a bit puzzling.

After having accused me of wanton sensationalism, of organizing long fishing expeditions in search of any random bit of drama or levity, Miss Rabinowitz cites as an example my quest, at the beginning of the film, for a former concentration-camp doctor who, after having been found guilty in Nuremberg of perpetrating monstrous crimes on helpless inmates, practiced her medical profession with impunity for many years in a small German village after her release from prison. During our filming in Schleswig-Holstein, I stop two inhabitants of that village on the street, ostensibly to ask for directions to the doctor’s house, but in fact, and quite obviously, to get a reaction from them concerning her former activities. Both interviewees admit some vague recollections of the case, and remember “having read something or other about it in the papers.” In doing so, they openly display their total lack of interest, and their complete moral indifference. One of them, shrugging his shoulders, adds spontaneously: “Around here, she was considered a good doctor. . . .”

Now here is the way . . . Dorothy Rabinowitz describes the scene:

One man, having told the little he knows, senses the noose of small talk [emphasis mine] tightening. Impatient with Ophuls’s gregariousness [emphasis mine], he walks away, indicating, not without some justice on his side, that a person need not indefinitely be detained by conversations to which he has nothing whatever to contribute.

So here we have the curious case of a Jewish film critic sharing her distaste for a film interview, and the methods of the interviewer, with the German citizen being interviewed, and offering her sympathy for the latter’s (a German citizen’s) impatience with the whole subject of concentration-camp doctors. In this, she will be glad to know, she fully agrees with my censors on German television, who also thought I was victimizing those poor men.

Her feeling of the scene’s pointlessness is shared by her eminent colleague, Pauline Kael, who also disapproves of the so-called “sauna sequence.” But Pauline Kael is foxy. Her critique, as usual, is so impressionistically authoritarian that she makes herself almost invulnerable. The question, marginal but difficult to avoid, occurs to me: whose feminine sensitivities and womanly intuition are influencing whose? Kael-Rabinowitz, or Rabinowitz-Kael?

Toward the end [emphasis mine] of The Memory of Justice,” writes Dorothy Rabinowitz in the opening sentence of her review,

there occurs one of those moments, small in themselves, that invite disproportionately large reflections on the whole enterprise. . . . The scene takes place in a sauna in Germany. . . .

She then proceeds to describe the vulgarity and uselessness of the scene in great detail, ascribing thought connections to me, between nudity in the sauna bath and nudity in the shower rooms of the extermination camps, which I am fairly well placed, I believe, to deny ever having made. One-and-a-half columns later, she concludes:

By this time [emphasis mine] it does not occur to the viewer to ask by what inexorable logic we find ourselves in a German sauna. . . . The random hunt for the provocative, evident . . . in the foregoing four-and-a-half hours, has by now earned a kind of acceptance [emphasis mine].

It seems somewhat callous of me to intrude on the critic’s creative reveries with a crude question of fact. But, unless the projectionist mixed up the reels, Miss Rabinowitz must have seen this particular sequence, like everybody else who saw it, in the first hour of the film, where it is part of a whole chapter on “Nuremberg and the Germans,” and where the conversations, once again, tend to demonstrate, quite clearly, the way many ordinary citizens in Germany attempt to deal or not to deal with the past. The conversation clearly and spontaneously underlines the fact that middle-class, middle-aged Germans of my own and Günter Grass’s generation who were in their early or late teens at the end of the war (remember the “Werewolves”?), who now sweat off their extra pounds in sauna baths and frequently voted for Willy Brandt, were not told by their parents or teachers about the Nuremberg trials, and that, to the best of their knowledge, next to nothing is being taught about Nazi crimes in German schools today.

Idle chatter, do you think? A random hunt for local color? Sexist exploitation of the human body? Perhaps all of it, or perhaps none of it. Let the public be the judge. But whatever logic or lack of it presided over the editing of my film, the fact remains that the sequence is shown at the beginning, not at the end, where, indeed, far more fundamental issues are being raised. . . .

I can only assume one of two things:

  1. The critic’s memory and/or her attention span are so seriously limited as to disqualify her for the work she presumes to undertake.
  2. She has deliberately chosen to disregard contradiction by that small portion of the film’s potential audience who have already seen it, in order to concentrate her best efforts on the task of discouraging from possible attendance the much larger portion which has not.

Personally, I’m inclined to favor the second hypothesis. Jewish readers of COMMENTARY, should they disregard Miss Rabinowitz’s advice, might discover that The Memory of Justice very clearly demonstrates that its author believes that the cause of justice was well served in Nuremberg, that the scope and the monstrosity of Nazi crimes are unique in the annals of recorded history, that no equation is made between genocide in Auschwitz and war crimes in Vietnam, and that most Germans have swept the “corpse into the cellar.” Such discoveries must be prevented at all costs, because the film also, quite deliberately, offends some of Miss Rabinowitz’s prejudices, because, quite in contrast to my earlier film, The Sorrow and the Pity, where I obtained the Jewish Seal of Good Housekeeping, the new film strikes too close to home. And you and I, Miss Rabinowitz, know exactly where and when that is, don’t we? Well, all I want you to know is that I did it on purpose [emphasis mine!].

Marcel Ophuls
Wallis, Switzerland



To the Editor:

It really was a relief to read Dorothy Rabinowitz’s article, which defied “the torrent of critical enthusiasm” with which The Memory of Justice has been received in the U.S. This letter is not meant to take anything away from Miss Rabinowitz’s arguments against Marcel Ophuls, but rather to add a few points which she left out. Though, as she says, The Sorrow and the Pity is a better film than The Memory of Justice, the first does not rely more on history than the second, and it does not impose on it less “ideology,” that is, less bias or distortion.

Some of the distortions in The Sorrow and the Pity are easy to palm off on Americans—and also on a large segment of the French people—who don’t know the intricacies of the wartime French Resistance. Thus in the film Marcel Ophuls may have given the impression that he was dealing impartially and objectively with both the non-Communists and Communists in the Resistance by interviewing a representative of each tendency. But the non-Communist spokesman presented by Ophuls was a carefully selected “villain”: a narrow-minded army colonel whom I had never heard of before, with an ugly, sinister face and unbelievably reactionary views which were uncommon in the Resistance, even among the groups which had come from the royalist or other extreme Right nationalist ranks. To represent the Communist side, however, there was Jacques Duclos, the chubby and jovial “elder statesman” of the French Communists.

How did Ophuls manage to avoid bringing forward, to represent the non-Communists, a man like Henri Frenay, also a former army officer, but with a clear and clean mind? Frenay started one of the very first Resistance movements, Combat, and was recognized after the war as one of the most important leaders of the Resistance.

Paradoxically, the choice of Jacques Duclos for the Communists was perhaps even more revealing not only of Ophuls’s bias but of his submissiveness. Charles Tillon would have been a more typical representative of the Communist Resistance. Once the Communists started resisting (that is, after Germany attacked the USSR), Tillon organized and led the FTP (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans), the most effective fighting force in occupied France. But Tillon later ran into trouble with the party line. In 1952, he was removed from all his high party posts . . ., and his name disappeared until 1970, when the Communist press announced that he was officially expelled from the party. So the Communists certainly wouldn’t have liked it at all to see Charles Tillon brought back as the former national commander of the FTP. And Marcel Ophuls did not bring him back. . . .

As for The Memory of Justice, I shall limit myself to one remark. Ophuls has shown the many former Nazis who live unmolested—and sometimes respected—in West Germany. Fine. But what about the many Nazis who occupied—and often still occupy—very high positions in the administration of East Germany, particularly in the army and police? Of course Ophuls could not have looked for them freely in East Germany as he did in West Germany, but he could at least have drawn attention to them. . . .

I may have overlooked something in this four-and-a-half-hour-long documentary, but I can remember perhaps only one or two minutes which were unpleasant for the Russians: the mention of Katyn during the Nuremberg trial. But I wonder how many people were aware of this reference. . . .

Leo Sauvage
New York City



To the Editor:

. . . I think it is not hindsight which makes me see The Sorrow and the Pity somewhat differently from the way Dorothy Rabinowitz does. True, the fact that victims appeared in it—as they do not in The Memory of Justice—and that the viewer is able to contrast them with the collaborators, makes a difference to some of us. . . . [But] the net effect of The Sorrow and the Pity, especially if one remembers the distaste with which Ophuls appears to regard the treatment of the Frenchwoman accused of collaboration, . . . is to cancel out all distinctions. No one, the film seems to be saying, was responsible for his or her actions; everyone acted according to the situation his life had placed him in, or at least most people did. . . .

In The Memory of Justice Ophuls presents us with a very big pot into which he has thrown a lot of material, making us think that the pot may contain something interesting. . . . But what the pot really holds are many distortions. Ophuls’s false emphases are as much distortions of history as were Hannah Arendt’s emphases in Eichmann in Jerusalem, and as baleful in their contributions to the rewriting of history. . . .

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Night and Fog and The 81st Blow, films that tell us far more about what happened than either The Sorrow and the Pity or The Memory of Justice, have been missed by most people, while Ophuls’s work is taken as . . . the last word on the subject.

Norma Freedman
New York City



Dorothy Rabinowitz writes:

It is a useful rule of thumb never to reply point by point to correspondence which issues from passion. The task is usually endless, the results invariably profitless to writer and reader alike. That said, let me proceed on a modest scale to put aside the rule; that is, to answer those points in Marcel Ophuls’s letter that are answerable, as distinguished from those merely lying about on the page.

With regard to the wandering interview, to which I objected, and to Mr. Ophuls’s charge that I aligned myself with his German censors: I plead guilty (even if the subject is a German citizen and I am a Jewish film critic) to believing that aimless questions do not fall into the province of a moral right. Mr. Ophuls has, in this latest film of his, done more than his share to elevate the status of the non sequitur—whether by conviction or necessity, it is difficult to say—and so it does not come as a surprise, entirely, that he should provide so feeling a defense of a scene notably lacking in either logic or consequence. Not surprising either is Mr. Ophuls’s ugly argument that a Jewish critic has here shared her sympathy with a German citizen—a point that is of a piece with the general impulses behind his film, i.e., the straining after coarse parallels, the predilection for cheap irony.

As to influencing or being influenced by Pauline Kael, I can only observe that it is not only possible for two critics to come to the same conclusion but that, in a scene so distinguished for its point-lessness and vulgarity as the sauna sequence, the same conclusion is a virtual certainty. I do confess to misplacing that sauna scene, as Mr. Ophuls charges at some length. He protests that the sequence takes place in the first hour of the film, while at the end more “fundamental” issues are raised. But had the issues Mr. Ophuls raises at the end actually transcended the fatuities of the earlier scene in the sauna, it would have been easier to tell the beginning of the film from the end. As for Mr. Ophuls’s defense of Daniel Ellsberg, it seems to me that to speak of field incidents in World War II without reference to the Einsatzgruppen is to be guilty of obscene omission—the more so if one is aiming, as Ellsberg is, to establish that there was nothing unique in the behavior of the Germans, that My Lai and the Vietnam war itself were equal to the depredations of Nazism.

To turn to matters less clear, Mr. Ophuls suggests at the end of his letter that for me the film strikes “too close to home”—a location, he gives to understand, that he and I alone know. To this I can only reply that Mr. Ophuls here is in possession of a vision keener than it is given the rest of us to attain, and seems determined to avoid sharing it. The identity of whatever “it” is he has done “on purpose” must similarly remain shrouded in mystery.

Quite separate from Mr. Ophuls’s personal intentions, however, is the matter of the pernicious effect of a film which attempts, consciously or otherwise, to alter the significance of certain facts of history. No one has put it better than Harold Rosenberg in a recent, scathing review of The Memory of Justice, in which he comments on the film’s focus on the “humanness” of the Nazi war criminals: “I regard commiseration for the Nazis as human beings as intellectually degrading and morally degenerate,” Rosenberg writes. Precisely. To the generation of viewers who have grown up since the Nazi crimes were perpetrated, he further states, “Memory presents a dilution of the significance of this vast organized death system by fitting pictures of corpses being dragged to pits into a rhythm of night-club performers, lush landscapes, chatter in sauna baths, and gentlemen reminiscing reflectively at their fireplaces.”

If I had any intentions in writing my review, they were not to direct readers away from the film but rather to invite those who see it to feel free, despite the torrents of critical acclaim showered on it, to dislike The Memory of Justice and repudiate the parallels it draws, parallels that are both an affront to honest minds and an insult to the memory of the millions whose lives were obliterated under National Socialism as a matter of cold, deliberate policy.

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