When I was in college, I had a bunch of English professors who were really tops, and a couple of who were really indulgent of my slothful ways. There were five, precisely, who I recall vividly; of them, three were politically left-leaning and two were vociferously conservative. One of the conservatives Richard Jaarsma, had a column in my college paper, The Beacon, in which he regularly traded barbs with a student columnist named Joel Lewis, who titled his column “Congliptious” (Roscoe Mitchell people will get the reference; possibly needless to say, William Paterson College in the late ‘70s wasn’t exactly teeming with Roscoe Mitchell people, and I sure needed it explained to me at the time) and wore a Maoist cap in his author’s photo. Dr. Jaarsma, who by 1978-9 had what I imagine must have been voluminous experience in dealing with snotty undergrad self-styled leftists, once tried to explain conservativism to a classroom full of them. Liberalism and or progressive thought, he contended, was all about making things complicated, needlessly complicated, while conservatives thought things were simple. (Dr. Jaarsma was also a Calvinist, so…) And that things, by which I suppose I mean issues and ethical quandaries and questions about governments and their actions, when considered simply, could be handled/solved by mere application of good old common sense.
I’m not doing his, um, argument justice, but he sure made it sound swell. At the time however, I thought my version of liberalism, or progressive thought, or whatever barely formed thing it was, was pretty simple myself. When I read the Gospels of the New Testament as a child and a tween, the things that stuck with me were this: Jesus was a little tetchy, talking back to his mother and killing a fig tree just because, and this was odd; Jesus condemned those who made loud public professions of religious fervor; Jesus was into what seemed like a “communal” lifestyle that contained certain vestiges of what we now call socialism (my interpretation of the lifestyle might have been colored by my own counter-culture inflected utopian ideals at the time I was reading, in the late 1960s/early 1970s); and Jesus said, “That which you have done unto the least of my brothers, thou hast done to me.” These impressions, then, flowed into my inchoate liberalism, the main tenet of which was and when I remind myself to go by it still is “Don’t be shitty to people, and, maybe, try to help out people who are in less fortunate circumstances than you.” Nowadays I read whiny pompous articles by the likes of Mike Deresiewicz, where, rhetorically assailing the “religion” of “political correctness,” he sneer in an aside that “liberal students (and liberals in general) are [...] bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to.” Oh, teach me Mike Deresiewicz. Teach me to defend my position, when you have a minute not being oppressed by those damn kids. (To be entirely honest I have my moments of feeling oppressed by those damn kids myself, but these moments are not really worth the trouble of talking about and anyway once I talk myself down I understand I’m not oppressed at all.)
For some reason thoughts such as these buzzed around in a peripheral portion of my consciousness as I watched, a couple of weeks ago in a nice cozy screening room that I only very rarely registered as being fifteen stories above the ground, the 1970s-made Marcel Ophuls film The Memory of Justice, which will have a new premiere of sorts on HBO 2 on April 24. I say “1970s-made” because it’s arguably instructive to keep in the back of one’s mind the fact that the film was initiated in 1973, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. The initial touchstone for the film was to be a book by Telford Taylor, who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials and who subsequently investigated American war crimes in the Vietnam War. Ophuls’ film ran into a roadblock with backers who felt he was spending too much time on Nuremberg. Rescue came in the form of entrepreneur and activist Hamilton Fish V, and Paramount Pictures, whose days of distributing 278-minute documentaries are long past. (Seeing the Paramount logo kicking off the film, which first saw release in 1976 and is screening on HBO2 in a restoration backed by The Film Foundation, is a bit of a shock, honestly.)
The structure of Ophuls’ film is discursive, loose, almost casual. I didn’t take notes because I was seeing the movie for my own edification, but if I recall correctly part one is titled “Nuremberg” and Part Two is called “Nuremberg and Other Places.” The picture begins with a text explaining the title; it does not refer to justice as it was dispensed in a time past, but rather to a Platonic ideal of “justice” which, according to the text’s explication, exists only in a kind of collective human memory. As opposed, one is left to infer, in lived reality. The movie then shows a bit of an interview with the musician Yehudi Menuhin, who states his belief that all human beings are somehow guilty. And then to a French airport, and an interview with a French man who had been a paratrooper in the Algerian war. And so on. There are even scenes that resemble home movies of a sort, of a birthday party for Ophuls, with his German wife and children, at which he discusses with his family the sort of movie they think he ought to be making as opposed to this one. They seem to come down pretty heavily on the side of Banana Peel, the 1963 fictional comedy that was his feature debut. And not just because Ophuls’ wife, who was a teen in Hitler’s Germany, will be interviewed later on.
The archival footage of the Nuremberg trials is astonishing, and the interview footage of Telford, who was a young Brigadier General when he was a prosecutor there, is also absorbing. There is a very generous amount of interview footage with Albert Speer. You can’t take your eyes off of him, ever. Refined urbane, alert, guilty of what he’s guilty of in his mind, seemingly unfailingly frank in his answers to Ophuls’ gently probing questions…the very fact of his existence on film in this format compelled me to hold my breath every time he appeared. Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, whose archival testimony provides one of the film’s most truly galvanic moments, doesn’t say much of Speer when Ophuls brings him up to her; the Auschwitz survivor deems him barely worthy of acknowledgement and holds that he is a liar. As the movie continues, an terrifying web is drawn with respect to guilt, to innocence, to the knowability of the degree of innocence, to what punishment fits which crime. Speer does not complain of his twenty years in Spandau Prison and why should he. His clear-eyed intelligence makes him an informational asset to be sure, and also to be sure, no confession, especially a public one, is not somehow self-serving. And yet a part of one thinks: how is it that a right-hand man to Hitler got to stay alive long enough to be interviewed? And he’s not the only one about whom one thinks this. Ophuls always takes into account the humanity of his interviewees; his method here is very different than the dry ironical tone he brought to bear when interrogating Jacques Vergès in 1988’s great Hotel Terminus. There are snippets of him discussing family matters with Speer. Taylor takes a break from chatting to play on the piano some marches he’s composed. At one point Ophuls stops at a German spa and interviews a cadre of uninhibited nude men and women about the current standard of living they enjoy. Ophuls also discussed his own father, the divine Max, and other German artists driven far from home.
As an American, one is able to feel gratified about the conduct of “Our Side” in the Nuremberg Trials. The idea of “the victor trying the vanquished” is mentioned several times, but not in a tone of outrage, but almost as if it’s the natural order of things. Then Taylor, quite casually, wonders aloud whether the U.S. had the right to prosecute anybody or anything given, you know, Hiroshima. At which point the film takes off into another dimension. And as if in a headlong rush after this, Ophuls interviews widows of fallen Vietnam soldiers, activist draft dodgers, activists. The title of the Telford Taylor book that spurred Ophuls’ movie is Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.
As the movie continued, I thought that perhaps one side effect of the ability to process complexity is hopelessness. Is hopelessness despair? Possibly not, as Camus has argued. (As it happens, the movie eventually returns to Menuhin to end on a note of muted optimism for certain features of humanity.) One thing The Memory of Justice left me certain of is that the refusal to see complexity—the insistence on thinking in terms of “winning” or “we don’t win”—always leads to barbarism. I live in a non-violent environment, far away from war, one in which the hierarchies of cruelty are largely rhetorical. (I was recently reading a profile of the hatemonger Mike Cernovich, and I was struck—well, appalled—by the way he liked to drop the phrase “basic bitch” with such regularity, and I thought of the evolution of that colloquialism, which initially seemed “salty” but essentially harmless, and I thought about the petty callousness of everyday discourse and how it seems to delight in dancing on the line of genuine toxicity.) In such an environment I can only intellectualize, or extrapolate, on the truth of Hemingway’s words: “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”
If you are able, I believe you ought to watch The Memory of Justice sooner than later, is what I’m trying to say. It is a great film.