NEW YORK — Marcel Ophuls demands your time. Moreover, the 89-year-old documentary film director, born in Germany and holding French and American citizenship, deserves it.
The son of German-Jewish director Max Ophuls (a giant of world cinema whose films include “The Earrings of Madame de…” and “Lola Montès”), Marcel began his career as an actor and assistant director to his father in France, where his family fled during World War II. He made some successful films, including the Jean-Paul Belmondo – Jeanne Moreau romp “Banana Peel,” but in time he turned toward documentaries, making some of the most important works about the 20th century’s darkest moments.
His most lasting achievements can be seen as a trilogy. In 1969 he released “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a penetrating exposé into the culture of French collaboration during WWII. If you remember the “Annie Hall” joke about “a four-hour documentary on Nazis,” this is the one they are talking about. And that length is actually selling it a tad short.
In 1988 he won the Academy Award for “Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbi,” a thorough examination into the life of the Nazi war criminal, his capture and trial. It’s four hours and 27 minutes, and absolutely staggering.
In between these two highly-regarded works was a middle child: “The Memory of Justice,” released in 1976. A bold and philosophical project, Ophuls himself recently referred to it as “flopp[ing] pretty badly when it came out [but] the best work I ever did in my life, or at any rate the most personal and the most sincere of my films.”
Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and a handful of other organizations, this four hour and 38-minute movie — the longest of the bunch — was recently retrieved from the vault, cleaned up, given new subtitles and had all the original audio reinstated, ridding it of dubs.
So, what is “The Memory of Justice”?
Much of it focuses on the Nuremberg Trials, but it is far more than a beat-by-beat explanation of that process. It uses Nuremberg as a springboard to ask unanswerable questions. What is justice in the face of an atrocity like the Holocaust? Should the victors in a war be the ones to sit in judgement? And how can those same victors charge people with the death of innocents after blasting Dresden and Hiroshima to bits?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa — that last one’s a little different,” I can hear you saying from here. And most would agree, including Ophuls. But if ever there’s a time to give the conversation a solid working-over in your mind, it’s during this film and with the people that inhabit it.
‘It takes a movie like this, with actual real life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole’
Its interview subjects range from Nuremberg players such as American assistant counsel Telford Taylor, British prosecutor Hartley Shawcross, a number of tattooed witnesses and some of the surviving defendants. This was, for me anyway, the most shocking aspect. The current political rhetoric, at least online, is to flippantly call someone with bellicose or closed-minded attitudes a Nazi. It takes a movie like this, with, like, actual real-life Nazis, to splash cold water on that sort of hyperbole.
Albert Speer, done with his 20-year prison sentence, is the guilt-ridden, “noble” Nazi who, at least on paper, has all the alibis he needs to kinda-sorta wiggle out of the more heinous moral accusations. At one point he says to Ophuls that, no, he didn’t know the full scale of the Nazi crimes, but he could have known more. The implication is that he intentionally kept himself ignorant and, quite frankly, anyone who can’t recognize the lure of that position is probably lying to themselves a little bit.
More startling is Karl Dönitz, Navy Admiral and final head of the Third Reich after Hitlers’ suicide. Unrepentant in his beliefs and living well in his old age, this sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see.
This sickening individual is among the more repellent screen villains you’ll ever see
More depressing is a villager Ophuls meets while on the hunt for the concentration camp where Dr. Herta Oberheuser, who apparently had quite a successful practice later in life, performed her nefarious human experiments.
But this local, nameless chap, fishing rod in hand, is eager to talk about the glorious Nazi years, when there was no crime and everyone knew their place. He crinkles his nose when Ophuls brings up Auschwitz — it was unnecessary, he shrugs in agreement — but soon swats it away as an afterthought.
These smaller moments — the chase toward the truth, the hunt for a revelation just out of grasp — are what makes Ophuls’ films so fascinating. “The Memory of Justice” draws its name from Plato’s concepts of the perfect and forgotten ideals that man strives in vain to recapture. With this acceptance of fallibility, the movie itself becomes an expression of this, and grace notes are found in the in-between fragments: the setting up of an interview, the chatter before the questions, Ophuls’ willingness to interrupt and have a conversation that sends this into a whole other level of journalism.
This manifests itself on a visual level, too. Unlike today’s documentaries in which subjects are always shot in a studio, lit before gray or black backgrounds, Ophuls brings his camera into peoples’ homes. The Nazis put on their best suits. The British noblemen are framed by a fireplace or fine paintings. The American scholars and professors speak from their kitchens, cans of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee visible on the counter. There’s an immediacy to each scene that is terrifyingly real.
This is a four-and-a-half hour film, so clearly I’m leaving a lot out — for example, the segments with Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, which are extraordinary. If the names sound familiar that’s because two narrative films have been made about them (one starring Farrah Fawcett). But where “The Memory of Justice” throws us a curve, and what may have been responsible for its initial financial failure, is when it jumps ahead to modern times to discuss, at length, the Vietnam War.
It is unclear precisely what Ophuls wants to say about Nazi crimes versus American atrocities in Vietnam, but he definitely wants you to find a line and dot it yourself. The massacre at My Lai is given special focus, and commentary from Daniel Ellsberg and John Kenneth Galbraith and others are mixed with stories from parents and widows of American soldiers who died during the conflict.
It’s all very upsetting but it’s also all very… thoughtful? Adult? Mature?
Watching this movie in 2017, it’s amazing to see these topics discussed with sincerity and intellect and, most importantly, at a speed that seems human. Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling.
‘Television news today, at least in the United States, is about as meaningful as professional wrestling’
Hacks are given 11 seconds to shout sound-bytes at one another before the next commercial break. As disgusting as the sentiment may seem, to watch someone have a polite and calm conversation with a Nazi is a refreshing change of pace in the current infotainment landscape.
And that’s where there’s some good news. This new restoration is airing on HBO2 on April 24 (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and will remain streamable on HBO Go indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean you should let it linger. This movie is over 40 years old. The time has come to make some time.