PRINT February 1977

Sweet Reason: Marcel Ophuls' “The Memory of Justice”

AT THE PREMIERE OF Marcel Ophuls’ The Memory of Justice at the New York Film Festival last October, an extraordinary thing happened, a little incident in which life imitated art in a very apt way. Before the screening of the film began, I noticed Telford Taylor outside the hall, and just at the close of the intermission—the film is over four and a half hours with an intermission a bit beyond the middle—I spotted Taylor again as he took a seat at the front of a box the festival usually reserves for its guests of honor. There was nothing surprising about seeing Taylor here. As the U.S. Chief Counsel at the Nuremberg war trials, Taylor is seen frequently in the documentary footage Ophuls’ film employs; and as the author of Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, Taylor appears as frequently in an interview Ophuls made expressly for his film. At a news conference after the press screening of the film several days earlier, Ophuls had said that Taylor’s book “inspired” him to make the film, and in the film’s credits Taylor is accorded special recognition as “Historical Consultant” on the film. The incident I just mentioned came, though, when the film was over. Before the house lights went up, a spotlight was flashed on the box where I had seen Taylor, and there, in the very chair that he had occupied, was Marcel Ophuls, acknowledging the ovation his film was receiving from the audience. This was what seemed so apt: this magical transformation of Taylor into Ophuls in the dark of the film, this protean emergence of the filmmaker himself while the film was running.

In answering a question at the news conference about why his film concentrates on Taylor, Ophuls said that it is because his own views are very close to Taylor’s. Clearly Ophuls’ views do remain close to Taylor’s throughout the film too. From the very beginning the film pursues a comparison between Nuremberg and Vietnam whose basis is in Taylor’s book; and the film in the end accepts Taylor’s own conclusion that the legal precedents of Nuremberg do not apply to Vietnam, though the spirit and principles of those trials certainly do. At the end of his book Taylor said,

One may well echo the acrid French epigram, and say that all this “is worse than a crime, it is a blunder”—the most costly and tragic national blunder in American history . . . . Somehow we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg, and that failure is today’s American tragedy.

At the end of his film, Ophuls was without question in agreement with Taylor on this.

Yet Ophuls’ film is not in any sense an adaptation of Taylor’s book, nor are the purposes and methods with which Ophuls compared Nuremberg to Vietnam the same as Taylor’s. For one thing, Taylor was scrupulously careful to find points of comparison where the facts and circumstances were as close as possible. The pivotal chapter in his book—the one where it literally gets down to cases—begins with an “Eyewitness Account . . . From Two Wars.” In this opening section of the chapter, a report on MyLai and a report on a massacre of Ukranian Jews by the SS are run on facing pages. The relationship of the executioners to their victims, and even the means and conditions of execution, is markedly similar in the two accounts. In reading Taylor’s book we constantly feel that what makes his discussion a responsible one is his sense of where alignments between incidents are possible. He was seeking a “precedent” in the legal sense, and the authority of his book seems to come from the pains he took to make sure the facts were equivalent.

In Ophuls’ film, on the other hand, there is an important but unacknowledged discontinuity between the investigations of German and American crimes. When Ophuls came to deal with American culpability, largely in Part Two of his film, he shifted the grounds of his inquiry. The sections of the film concerned with the Nazis emphasize their crimes against humanity committed in concentration camps where Germany’s own citizens were often the victims. The American sections of the film dwell on crimes against the code of war with foreign nationals as victims of air raids during World War II or search-and-destroy missions in Vietnam. At first, it might appear that Ophuls has simply been less precise and rigorous in his transitions than Taylor was—that he has allowed his thinking to be sloppy and facile where Taylor was very strict with himself. This is not so, however. It is not that Ophuls’ alignments and transitions are fuzzier than Taylor’s, but only that they are different. Beginning from Taylor’s premises, Ophuls hoped to pursue an argument far less legalistic than Taylor’s, and far more difficult to get at.

The common ground that Ophuls was seeking between German and American atrocities begins to become apparent when you notice certain similarities that come up in the interviews. Close to the beginning of the film, Ophuls was interviewing a woman named Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a fighter in the Resistance who was sent to a concentration camp when she was caught, and is today a senator in France. At this particular moment she is remembering how a friend who also survived the camps felt afterward at the birth of her first child. Her feelings were mixed, Vaillant-Couturier explains, because of her thought for all those she knew who did not survive and would not know this joy she felt. She was even a little guilty at having survived to feel it herself. This is a poignant reflection, and there is a moment much later in the film which I believe Ophuls included just because it contains very much the same thought. This time the speaker is Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist from Yale who has made a study of the survivors of the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan. They too feel, according to his findings, guilt at having survived. “The survivors of every holocaust do,” he observes.

The basis of comparison Ophuls sought, in other words, is not in the kind of calamity that befell war victims, but in the effects upon them and their reactions. It is the human consequences of events more than their legal causes that he hoped to ferret out. And perhaps because Ophuls’ interests expanded beyond Taylor’s own in this way, Taylor himself becomes, as the film progresses, a curiously diminished figure. This is not to say that Taylor is ever in any sense repudiated by the film. But he is, maybe inevitably, brought down to human scale by the end. I say this may have been inevitable because he is so much the embodiment of America herself—of what is just and noble and right-minded in her institutions—that when the film turns its attention fully on Vietnam, and America is reduced in our eyes, Taylor seems almost unfairly, but unavoidably, to be reduced too.

In the documentary footage of him as U.S. counsel at Nuremberg, prosecuting the trials, he is so imposing a figure. He is literally an avenging hero, a sword of righteousness in those film clips. In Ophuls’ interview with him 30 years later, slumped down in a chair, no longer in uniform, Taylor is bound to appear, like the country he loves, shrunk in stature. At one point, Ophuls asked Taylor about the dedication in his book, which reads, “To the Flag and the Liberty and Justice for which it stands.” It is of course to Taylor’s credit that he can write the book at all in the light of such sentiment. But the very clash between the patriotic rhetoric of this dedication and the hypothesis the book’s title announces suggests that he must feel himself to be a compromised figure now.

Nor does Ophuls’ undimmed admiration for Taylor prevent his film from owning up to the limitations he ultimately sensed in Taylor’s experiences and point of view. Ophuls retained from an interview with Daniel Ellsberg, for instance, a critique of Taylor as a man whose views are narrowed by his still thinking of himself as a general. Though Ellsberg is also admiring of Taylor, when he points out the way in which. Taylor’s views are circumscribed we cannot help feeling that he is right. Ophuls acquiesced to this himself in a scene from the Taylor interview late in the film, where he asked Taylor about the book Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music. Taylor admits that that book “pinked a tender spot” in him, not least because he fancies himself a composer of sorts and most of his music comes out sounding very military. With that Taylor jumps up and puts on the stereo a recording made when he conducted some of his own compositions at the concert shell in Central Park. The music, which Ophuls allowed to continue at a fairly high audio level as background for the rest of that part of the interview, is God-awful. In a film through which undertones of really great music flow like a subterranean river—music from Joan Baez’s songs to a Yehudi Menuhin rehearsal with which the film ends—Taylor’s martial compositions make him a pathetic figure in a way. They suddenly make us realize that this avenging hero of the Nuremberg trials is in fact human, all too human.

Most of the important figures in the film have shadow selves of sorts among the other, less important figures. The traits and experiences of the former are echoed, even caricatured, and thus elucidated in the traits and experiences of the latter. If Taylor has a doppelgänger of this kind, it is a rather incriminating one, Lord Shawcross, who was Taylor’s British counterpart at Nuremberg. In Ophuls’ contemporary interview with Shawcross, he comes across as a pretty unsympathetic figure. At one point, for example, he says quite airily, “Oh, I’m all in favor of involving civilians in war because if you do, there are likely to be fewer wars.” There is also a moment early in the film where Shawcross in a jocular mood says, “I’m not a Marxist,” and Ophuls puts him down by cutting to the extensive grounds of the manor house where he lives and is being interviewed. The cut-away is like a quip, a retort to Shawcross’ smugness.

But then a bit later in the film Ophuls returned to that shot once more at a point where the quip has more import. This time Shawcross is excusing the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden on the grounds that it was an inevitable consequence of the German bombardment of Liverpool or London. “Why, we lost a barn here ourselves,” he adds, as if that clinched his argument; and here Ophuls cut again to the Tudor buildings and manicured lawns of Shawcross’ estate. I am not claiming that some kind of guilt by association makes Taylor responsible as well for the callousness and pomposity we see in Shawcross. But we cannot help feeling, since Taylor’s experiences paralleled Shawcross’, that Taylor has also been affected by his personal immunity from the suffering he would judge. Because Shawcross has not Taylor’s innate decency, the remove from which he has had the privilege of viewing events brings out the worst in him. By force of character Taylor compensates for such judgmental detachment. But the detachment is still there, and we must in the end admit that his wisdom is unavoidably restricted by it.

In its totality, then, Taylor’s witness provides at best only half of what Ophuls was seeking. To see what more he hoped for, we might look at a short scene near the end of the film—a scene which appears almost as a model from which the whole film has been built. This scene is some documentary footage in which Vaillant-Couturier appears on the witness stand at Nuremberg. Over the course of the film, her interview emerges as one of the most compelling, and suddenly to see her as the young woman she has been talking about gives this little clip great impact, despite its brevity. As she is on the stand testifying, Ophuls put on the soundtrack, voice-over, her reminiscence of what it was like to be there. “The fact that I had this number, 31,685, tattooed on my arm” she says, “and had gotten out alive, and sat there . . . It seemed completely unreal.”

As she gets up to leave the stand, she has to pass right in front of the dock in which the Nazi defendants are seated, and the camera follows her while she does so. At a point where she draws close to them, Ophuls froze the frame for a few counts; and then when a reverse shot of the dock and defendants themselves comes up, he froze the frame again momentarily. As we are watching this sequence, Vaillant-Couturier, still speaking to us voice-over from the present, is remembering, “Leaving the stand, I said to myself, this is the minute of my life . . . .wanted to see them close.” But as she does finally come almost within reach of them, she reflects impassively, “They looked just like ordinary men.”

So much of both the technique and emotion of The Memory of Justice is compressed into this scene that we shall have to look at it in more detail later. But for now it is enough to notice in general how Vaillant-Couturier’s departure from the courtroom epitomizes the film as a whole. When she says as she walks by the dock, “This is the minute of my life . . . I wanted to see them close,” she is making a case for a kind of historic confrontation that Ophuls’ film recreates over and over again. Although she says nothing to the defendants as she passes out of the courtroom, she is suggesting that all history must finally become a dialogue of sorts, a face-to-face encounter of the kind contained in this “minute” of her life—or of the kind contained in the interviews on which this film is based. She is proposing that the protagonists of history must ultimately face each other, and be reconciled.

In his interviews with the 50 people that appear in the film, Ophuls was certainly trying to be the medium for an encounter, a confrontation and exchange, of this kind. Moreover, in putting his film together, he has juxtaposed and interwoven those interviews in a way that permits the historical protagonists, in effect, to talk to each other. The limitation of Taylor’s view is that he is only half of a dialogue like this. His experiences and what he has to say about them need a complement, an opposition, to confront the way Vaillant-Couturier does the defendants in the dock. Taylor needs to be brought “close” to someone else whose experiences and point of view are sufficiently different from his own. That someone else in this film is Albert Speer.

Of all the dialogues Ophuls created in his film, that between Taylor and Speer is the central one. They become the twin foci of the film’s binocular view of coercion and redress, guilt and righteousness, Germany and America. Their interviews are approximated by the editing, are brought “close,” in a way that makes them the epicenters of the film. In a surprising way, in fact, Speer’s moral authority grows in the film as Taylor’s declines. This is not to say that Speer is exonerated of his responsibility for the Third Reich any more than Taylor is ultimately repudiated by the film. But Speer is not vilified in Ophuls’ treatment of him either, and this is partly because Speer is willing to take a large measure of the responsibility for. Nazism himself. When Speer’s memoirs were published a few years ago, most reviewers were unwilling to believe his sincerity. But placing his trust in the face-to-face encounter, Ophuls accepted Speer at face value. Perhaps this is just the difference between what is revealed in print and in person—that in person a point of view is credible and persuasive while in print it is not. If so, Ophuls has wisely stuck by the evidence filmmaking itself provides and has shown what so many documentarians have lacked in the past: intellectual respect for their own medium.

Although Speer is at times evasive and tries to use the standard German defense of not knowing what conditions were in the concentration camps, when finally backed into a corner by Ophuls’ questioning he admits, “I knew enough. . . . ” If he had not avoided thinking about what he knew, he confesses, he would have had to realize what was going on in the camps. At the news conference after the press screening of The Memory of Justice, Ophuls said, “Speer should be given credit for doing so much more than all the others,” and he spoke of Speer’s “dignity” in submitting to endless interviews since his release from Spandau. Ophuls’ film reflects this opinion, but it is hard for us to accept in light of self-incriminating admissions by Speer that he “knew enough.” Such knowledge would seem to require for atonement some paroxysm of guilt ending in self-destruction. Anything less than that, we may feel, would be inadequate. The crime was so enormous that only being driven to madness could convince us the repentance is genuine. Anyone with a normal human conscience would presumably go berserk at a realization that Nazism was his fault.

The presumption here may well be wrong, however. Just as the crimes of the Nazis were not committed in an orgiastic and deranged state of mind, so we cannot expect them to be atoned for in such a state either. Both we and Nazism’s victims may want that kind of atonement, an Old Testament rending of the breast. But if we do we are probably not facing up to the fact that these atrocities were not an Old Testament form of sinning. They were a hideously modern sort committed largely by “ordinary men,” as Vaillant-Couturier observes, in an ordinary state of mind. We refuse to accept what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil” in Nazism because doing so adds insult to the injury Nazism has done the human race. It makes doubly hard the necessity of living with the fact that Nazism existed, and could exist again.

Nonetheless, Ophuls did accept these things and gave credence to the quiet vocation of atonement Speer has taken upon himself. Far from excusing the human suffering Speer caused, The Memory of Justice repeatedly juxtaposes other testimony to Speer’s in order to keep him honest. And yet, Ophuls also concluded, Speer is worth listening to. His behavior now is in a sense consistent with the crimes he committed as Nazi planning chief, and in one way this is of course distressing and unsatisfactory. But in another way it suggests that his behavior now is at least sincere.

On the original indictment at Nuremberg, where all the other defendants wrote disclaimers and refutations, Speer wrote, “This trial is necessary.” In the opening segment of Ophuls’ interviews with him in The Memory of Justice, Speer is asked why he keeps submitting to interviews about the Nazi period. (Other high-ranking Nazis Ophuls interviewed—Dr. Gerhard Rose, for instance, Gen. Walter Warlimont and Speer’s own administrative officer, Hans Kehrl—plaintively express the hope this will be the last time they are asked to dredge up the past.) In answer Speer says simply that he submits to interviews to make his experiences available and provide the information for people to draw their own conclusions about Nazism. “I don’t want to draw conclusions myself,” he says, “I leave that to the listeners.” These remarks set the tone for Speer’s testimony throughout the film; and while it is possible to interpret them as just another attempt by an ex-Nazi to shirk responsibility, clearly Ophuls did not interpret them that way. On the contrary, he accepted them to an extent precisely because they seem the words of an “ordinary man.” Again, I think Ophuls concluded that Speer’s testimony is, if nothing else, at least authentic. The lessons of authenticity, whatever they may be worth, are the ones to be learned from listening to what Speer has to say.

There is a certain consistency in Ophuls’ attitude here too, for he has shown this sort of compassion for history’s miscreants and losers before. In Ophuls’ other great film, The Sorrow and the Pity, which is about the collaboration in France during World War II, an aristocrat named Christian de la Maziere is interviewed at length. A French combat pilot who volunteered under Vichy for the “Charlemagne” group of the Waffen SS and served with the Nazis on the Eastern Front, de la Maziere is interviewed taking his ease in a palatial suite of rooms. But the story the interview unfolds is of 7,000 French volunteers for Germany and only 300 survivors after the war; and at the end of the interview, late in Ophuls’ film, something which happens in the background reveals that this grand setting is not de la Maziere’s home, as we have been allowed to suppose, but only a public building to which he is a visitor. This castle where we see de la Maziere now represents all the values he thought to preserve and inherit in France through his service to Nazism. That Ophuls should have filmed him there as a tourist is an appropriate irony and suddenly renders him, at worst, a pathetic figure rather than a contemptible one. In The Memory of Justice, Speer at times seems a comparable figure of almost tragic pathos.

There are various other old collaborationists in The Sorrow and the Pity whose plight, self-inflicted though it is, elicits sympathy from Ophuls. But I mention de la Maziere in particular because the way Ophuls handled his part in the film is very like the way he handled one of the characters in The Memory of Justice, a German ex-officer in the Waffen SS named Nixdorf who is a kind of shadow self for Speer much as Shawcross is for Telford Taylor. Nixdorf begins as a very unsympathetic figure when he voices his opinion that life under the Nazis was more “wholesome” than it is today. (Under this observation Ophuls ran footage of a book burning as a comment on Nixdorf’s contention that society’s freedom from “smut” was what made life wholesome in those days.)

By the end of the film, though, we have to concede some justice in Nixdorf’s resentment of the hypocrisy with which Nazism is treated. In a section where Telford Taylor and others consider the fate of the American Indian as an evidence from history of America’s own ability to commit atrocities, Ophuls injected a splice from Nixdorf’s interview in which Nixdorf says, not without humor, that American westerns give the impression the Waffen SS must be responsible for the extermination of the Indians too. As Nixdorf delivers this barb, the camera pulls back for the first time in his interview to reveal that he has lost an arm. The shock of this at a moment when our initial condemnation of him is giving way to mixed feelings affects us much as does the revelation that de la Maziere is a mere tourist in The Sorrow and the Pity. With Speer too, as with Nixdorf and de la Maziere, any easy feelings of scorn we have at first are forced to yield to much more complex and unsettling emotions by the end of the film.

At the news conference after the press screening of The Memory of Justice, Ophuls mentioned in passing at one point that he thinks Bruno Bettleheim’s The Informed Heart one of the greatest books there is on man in the 20th century. If there is a text which is equal to Ophuls’ film and could encompass every other book, even Taylor’s, as an influence on Ophuls, Bettleheim’s is it. Ophuls’ reference to Bettelheim at the news conference may well be a key to understanding Ophuls’ attitude toward a figure like Speer. Certainly that reference goes a long way toward explaining Ophuls’ ability to embrace Speer. The Informed Heart is indeed a remarkable document, not least because it is an intensely personal one. A discussion of life in concentration camps written 20 years after Bettelheim himself had spent a period in them, it is a book that strikes us as being a debt paid to the self—a work Bettelheim would have had to write for the integrity of his own personality even if no one else had ever read it.

Although the book reaches some very broad philosophical conclusions about the relationship of man to society in modern times, the book is in no sense academic. What permitted Bettelheim to survive both physically and morally in the camps was his ability to carry on, however crudely, the intellectual life for which his training in psychoanalysis and his own theories about society had prepared him. To analyze inmate behavior, including your own, while you are still an inmate in the camps yourself is clearly, as Bettelheim admitted at one point in his book, “schizophrenic.” But it was also necessary. Only by conforming outwardly, but preserving one’s individuality inwardly as fully as possible, could one hope to survive. We come away from Bettelheim’s book feeling that he had to write it in order to heal that disintegration of his own personality which the camp experience forced upon him. That it serves this function for Bettelheim himself is no doubt the source of its power for us as readers.

It is not hard to understand what an impression The Informed Heart would have made on Ophuls, whose German wife is interviewed at length in The Memory of Justice and whose father, the great film director Max Ophuls, was a refugee from Nazi Germany. The Memory of Justice was also made out of personal need, to a degree, though not such an extreme one as The Informed Heart. Like Ophuls’ film too, Bettelheim’s book deals dispassionately with heroes and villains alike. The book does not deny the humanity of either the camp inmates or the SS, but simply tries to understand the behavior of each. The consequence is that the book reveals the absolute mass state perfected by the Nazis to be as dehumanizing for its administrators as it is for its victims. (Bettelheim’s discussion of the personality of Auschwitz commandant Hoess is especially significant in this regard.) In fact, Bettelheim concluded that in certain crucial respects, the mental states of the Jews and the SS became mirror images of each other:

Both believed that members of the other group were sadistic, uninhibited, unintelligent, of an inferior race, and addicted to sexual perversions. Both groups accused each other of caring only for material goods and having no respect for ideals, or for moral and intellectual values. In each group there may have been individual justification for some of these beliefs. But the strange similarity indicates that both groups were availing themselves of analogous mechanisms of defense. Moreover, each group thought of the other in terms of a stereotype and was thus prevented from realistically evaluating any member of the other group and thus its own situation.

The instructive thing for Ophuls in all this must have been the way in which reason led Bettelheim to compassion. It is because Bettelheim could speak out of a very lucid and dedicated intellectual position that he was able to understand the actions of both Jews and Nazis perhaps better than either could understand themselves at the time. The great discipline that this required of Bettelheim was to extend to the SS the same unassuming process of his thought that he granted to his fellow inmates, and such discipline is also the great capacity for human pity that The Informed Heart shows. In The Memory of Justice, it is this same, sweet reason that Ophuls wanted to extend to the people he interviewed, even Albert Speer.

Starting with his own mixture of both personal and philosophical motives for inquiring into Nazism, Ophuls wanted to move like Bettelheim from dispassion to compassion. Like Bettelheim, Ophuls was therefore at pains to see the underlying humanity of people regardless of their ideological differences, and like Bettelheim he attempted to accomplish this by thinking analogically—by looking for the samenesses, the points of overlap and agreement, among camp inmates and camp administrators. How profoundly such comparisons became embedded in Ophuls’ thought processes—and indeed, how an intellectual can “think” in cinematic images in all—can be seen if we return to that moment when Vaillant-Couturier steps down from the witness stand at Nuremberg.

Vaillant-Couturier’s own observation at this moment that the Nazi defendants were “ordinary men” itself proposes the sameness of people. But we would not necessarily accept this observation had not Ophuls predisposed us to do so in the very presentation of it. Freeze frame shots of the sort Ophuls inserted as Vaillant-Couturier approaches the dock are a device often used in lesser documentaries to intensify emotion falsely, when the filmmaker fears the historical moment may be too bland on its own. Recognizing this, Ophuls used them here to reflect Vaillant-Couturier’s state of mind approaching the dock—“This is the minute of my life . . . . I wanted to see them close”—because her feeling then, as she anticipates some revelation of evil, is also false. This is the point of her final remark about “ordinary men” made at the moment we see her pass by the defendants and out of the frame. By playing off the sound against the image here, and having the remark about “ordinary men” in the interview undercut the fake drama of the freeze frames, Ophuls corroborated the remark itself.

By playing off sound against image at this moment Ophuls has also done more, though. He has made us see this crucial moment of his film as being connected with certain other moments. He has made us associate our feelings here with those we have elsewhere in the film. Consider, for example, how similar a treatment Ophuls gave the climactic moment of some footage in which another woman appears at Nuremberg, a concentration-camp doctor named Oberhauser whom the trials convicted of war crimes. At the moment when this woman steps down from the dock, just like Vaillant-Couturier, Ophuls again played sound against image. The image is of Oberhauser hesitating as she leaves the dock after entering her plea. The defendant after her is one-armed, and when she sees him struggling with the earphones for the translation, she turns back momentarily to help him. As she is doing so, showing this impromptu bit of concern for someone else, Ophuls’ voice-over narration on the sound track is informing us of the charge on which she will ultimately be convicted. It seems that she has murdered scores of patients in a concentration-camp infirmary by injecting them with gasoline.

Oberhauser is the only other woman, besides Vaillant-Couturier, whom we see involved in the Nuremberg proceedings. Moreover, the two women look rather alike (in reviewing the film, one magazine I saw even identified a still of Oberhauser as being Vaillant-Couturier). By creating this parallel in his treatment of the two women—catching them at just the same moment as each leaves the dock and undercutting what we see with what we hear—Ophuls made Oberhauser into another of these shadow-self figures in his film. Or rather, to be perhaps more accurate, Oberhauser appears to us as an anti-self of Vaillant-Couturier. The parallel being made between them is a suggestively inverse one. In Oberhauser’s scene, it is the sound track that carries the demonic image while the visual image is a normative one. Vaillant-Couturier’s scene works the other way around, the visual implying a demonic perception of life as she approaches her Nazi tormentors in the dock, while the track, with its admission that these Nazis look “ordinary,” is the normative view.

But however the parallel plays itself out, what matters most is just the fact that it exists. Unlike the parallel we feel between Taylor and Shawcross, this one between Oberhauser and Vaillant-Couturier cannot in any way reflect ill on one of the figures. For one thing, the two women’s experiences are opposite rather than tandem like Taylor’s and Shawcross’. No transference, no guilt by association, can be interpreted into this equation. And yet the equation is still there. Precisely because the contrast between the two women should be so strong, any similarity that Ophuls’ treatment manages to imply is very upsetting. What kind of soul mate for Oberhauser, who is one of the most sinister and disturbing figures in the film, can Vaillant-Couturier be?

I think the question itself is the answer. It is to raise just this question in our minds that Ophuls has created a parallel between them. It is to trouble us with the thought that, whatever the crimes and weaknesses of the one or the virtue and strength of the other, both are still human. What one has done must be the object of our pity and a cause for our remorse just as much as what the other has suffered. We shall only begin to cope with atrocities, and perhaps lessen the likelihood of their occurrence, when we begin to see them as, at root, something human beings do to each other.

Thinking in these terms, equitably and with great dispassion, is what led Ophuls to the insights he has had into history—insights into the whole range of human behavior from its trivialities to its essentials. We shall come to the essentials directly; but to see first the importance that the trivialities take on, we need only pursue the Oberhauser case a bit further along the web of associations spun out for it by the film. In addition to connecting with the climactic moment of Vaillant-Couturier’s testimony at Nuremberg, that shot where Oberhauser helps a codefendant with the earphones leads back to itself again later on in Ophuls’ development of Oberhauser’s own story. For the mass murder of which she was convicted, Oberhauser served only a few years in prison and is now a retired pediatrician, having practiced for twenty years in Germany since her release. With some difficulty Ophuls tracked her down, asking all along the way whether it bothers people that she was a convicted war criminal. The answer is always no. But when Ophuls finally found her, she refused to be interviewed or photographed. Yet as the camera is trained on the front of her house and we hear her refusal, she is obviously surprised when Ophuls’ camera crew takes no for an answer and begins to leave. She becomes very solicitous. “Thank you—bitte,” she says sincerely, “Let me light the lamp so you can see your way.” At the moment when she says this Ophuls cut away again to that little clip, made almost three decades ago, in which she tries with such spontaneous concern to help her crippled co-defendant handle the earphones.

The point is that when history is seen face-to-face, seen with the immediacy that film provides, it often breaks down like this into the small kindness or personal touch someone imparted, however perversely, to events. Ophuls repeated the footage of Oberhauser assisting her co-defendant in order to emphasize this universal capacity of man for small considerations. The observation of this is one of those themes run throughout the film and summed up in the scene where Vaillant-Couturier steps down from the witness stand. As she passes out of the frame, the last thing we hear on the track from her interview is an anecdote about how an SS guard at her camp used to bring barley sugar as a treat for a child whose mother he himself had gassed. This is part of that ordinariness on which Vaillant-Couturier comments and which we find so unbearable in these war criminals because it makes them seem, for a moment anyway, so human.

Ophuls was very sensitive to these touches of humanity. At one point, for instance, retired Wing Commander E.J.B. Rose of the Royal Air Force discusses his knowledge of the fire-bombing of Dresden and admits that that action was undoubtedly a war crime. Though white-haired now, Rose has a boyish, almost beautiful face, and at the interview’s end, after there is really nothing left to say, Ophuls’ camera stays trained on Rose’s face until he at last breaks out in a smile. Whatever the reason he smiles here—very probably he is just reacting to the awkwardness of still being on camera—it is such an irrepressible, winning smile, so full of warmth and delight in life, that we cannot condemn him. We cannot even conceive of him as the accessory to a war crime he has just admitted being. At another point in the film Speer’s administrative officer, Hans Kehrl, complains that Speer’s sentence was, relatively, lighter than his own just because Speer is a more personable fellow. When asked about this by Ophuls, Speer replies bluntly that if it is so, he is glad of it. Even the forcefulness of Hermann Goering’s personality is allowed to shine through the film on occasion in footage of him at the trials or in the reminiscences of others. As the former U.S. Army psychologist in charge of the defendants, Dr. G.M. Gilbert, says of Goering, “You have to give the devil his due.”

Ophuls of course had his training in movies as a fiction filmmaker. His early experience included work on his father’s masterpiece, Lola Montes; and after also working as assistant to John Huston on Moulin Rouge and making one of the episodes for Love at Twenty, Ophuls made his own debut as a feature director with Banana Peel (1963) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jeanne Moreau. This background is what prepared Ophuls to think of his interviews and documentary footage as dialogue, an exchange between players, a drama. It equipped him to notice the details of behavior—Oberhauser’s kindness, Rose’s smile, Goering’s charm, etc.—and to see in these things the influence of personality on history. Yet as I pointed out earlier, The Memory of Justice is more concerned with the consequences of history than its causes—more concerned with the way history affects personality than the way personalities affect history.

The personalities in which Ophuls took an interest are never the charismatic leaders. Goering is only a secondary figure in this film and Hitler little more than a shadowy presence in the background. Nor do Johnson and McNamara receive any direct attention when the film turns to Vietnam. The figures who were important to Ophuls, much more than those who may have controlled history, are those who somehow contain it. They are people whose lives have under gone some profound historical contradiction, but whose personalities have remained intact. No matter what side such people are on originally, Ophuls respected them because their experiences, or their thoughts, have carried them across to the other side.

Bruno Bettelheim is someone like this—someone who has, in Bettelheim’s own terms, “integrated” his experiences and achieved a “concordance of opposites.” Vaillant-Couturier confronting in the dock at Nuremberg her Nazi persecutors, and realizing them to be “ordinary men,” is this person too. And so are Taylor and Speer. What finally qualifies them for the dialogue Ophuls created out of their interviews is the fact that each of them has carried on that dialogue within himself. Taylor’s attempts to cope with Vietnam and Speer’s to cope with Nazism make them worthy opponents for the grand debate The Memory of Justice conducts.

These people are the heroes of Ophuls’ film. The sort of turn-about in history that they have had to endure, and master, becomes the standard against which the film measures human behavior. The opinions the film treats frivolously are the ones people have never tested in experience—those held on Nazism, for instance, by Germans who have only come of age since the war. In one segment Ophuls interviewed a group of young Germans at a sauna bath, and afterwards he concluded with footage of these people swimming and sunbathing nude while schmaltz music plays on the sound track. He simply could not give their ideas more weight than that. But whenever his film comes upon someone who has had to think through the meaning of his own experiences, as Bettelheim did, it is another matter.

At the very beginning of his film, Ophuls used a clip from an interview he was to return to later—an interview with Col. Anthony Herbert (ret.), a figure who ranks with Vaillant-Couturier among the most imposing in the film. Herbert was the most decorated U.S. soldier in the Korean War, but during the Vietnam War he retired from the army because his superior officers covered up an atrocity he tried to have investigated. In his opening statement Herbert says that he now respects young men who behaved in accordance with their conscience at the time of Vietnam, whatever they did. “I admire those who went to Vietnam because they believed,” he explains, “and those who went to Canada because they believed in doing that.” The last thing Herbert says on his final appearance near the end of the film is that he is also in favor of amnesty—but an amnesty from all and for all. This time he explains that he feels we must bring the deserters home now and forgive them, and they in turn must forgive those who waged the war. Only then will America be able to close up the wounds the war opened in our society. Like his experiences, Herbert’s views recognize irreconcilable opposites. He tries to make room for both sides of this opposition in his feelings because he has literally served on both sides himself. His presence and his generosity appear at the very beginning of the film as a kind of preface for all that follows, and they return again at the end as a fitting conclusion.

About 15 or 20 of those interviewed in the film have been included just because they have had a dualistic experience like Herbert’s, though not all have arrived at his sort of wisdom as a result. Some have only an adamant righteousness like a convert’s. Daniel Ellsberg seems to be this way, and so do Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. His father died in a concentration camp at the same time that hers died in action in the German army. Now they devote their lives to tracking down and exposing ex-Nazis still living in Germany. But most of the people on whom Ophuls’ film centers are neither as conspicuous nor as active in their response to history as Ellsberg and the Klarsfelds. More typical is Frau Clara Lueben, who sits under a portrait of her husband in his Nazi uniform and tells quietly how, having been so proud when he first received his commission, he ended shooting himself in order not to have to sign death warrants for political prisoners.

Along with Col. Herbert in the opening sequence of the film there are moments from interviews with two others. One is Eddie Sowder, a medical orderly who served a whole tour of duty in Vietnam before deserting the army to work against the war; and the other is Noel Favreliere, who defected from the Foreign Legion in Algeria to avoid committing an atrocity, and joined the F.L.N.only to end up having to commit atrocities for them. Favreliere is in Ophuls’ film, as is a French general named de Bollardiere who resigned rather than command in Algeria, because Ophuls wanted to make clear that there are not just two sides to this issue, or two historical battlegrounds, Germany and Vietnam. But for me, and for most Americans I should think, the parts of the film at once both the most painful and the most absorbing are those that deal with the American experience in Vietnam. There is, for example, the interview with Louise Ransom and her husband, Robert, a World War II veteran who now regrets not having counseled desertion to a son who wavered, but went ahead to Vietnam anyway and was killed in action. And then there is Abe Simon.

Perhaps Simon seems so moving a figure just because he is not an ideologue or an intellectual. At one point during the interview Ophuls did with him in the printer’s shop where he works, Simon trips over the word “ambivalent” and never does get it right. He is not accustomed to thinking of his experiences as the kind that require such perplexing language. He is in the purest, least problematic sense of Vaillant-Couturier’s phrase “an ordinary man.” Nonetheless, his experiences have forced upon him a perception of his life and of history that has a good deal in common with Telford Taylor’s perceptions and Albert Speer’s, with Vaillant-Couturier’s and Frau Lueben’s and Col. Herbert’s. A veteran of World War II like Robert Ransom, Simon says he wishes his son had talked with him before deserting the army in Vietnam, but he admits that the boy would have encountered great resistance from him. Now his son is serving a term in a military prison here, despite promises made to returnees by the Ford administration, while his son’s wife is back in Sweden expecting their first child. “I couldn’t be there when my son was born,” Simon reflects, referring to his own service in the armed forces, “and now it looks like my son isn’t going to be there when his child is born either. It’s pretty ironical is all I can say—pretty ironical.” It is in people like Simon that the informed heart of Ophuls’ film lies.

At times in Ophuls’ work the ability to encompass more than one point of view is suggested just by the ability to speak more than one language. One of the points where feeling surges into The Memory of Justice is when we see a clip from a concert at which Joan Baez sings “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” in German, and a comparable moment in The Sorrow and the Pity is one at which Anthony Eden speaks in French. I mention the Eden interview from Ophuls’ earlier film because it also demonstrates that Ophuls’ capacity to admire people for the many-sidedness of their perceptions is not new. Sometime relatively early in The Sorrow and the Pity Ophuls asked Eden what he thought of the role the French played in World War II. The import of the question is that the French behaved rather badly as a people, but Eden ducks the question, saying that such things are impossible to judge or, at any rate, it is not for him to do so.

He is speaking here in English and speaking as a public man, a minister who dealt with De Gaulle during the war and was prime minister afterwards. Much later in the film, however, Ophuls asked essentially the same question again. Probably because it is later in the interview, Eden is speaking in a more confidential and open way. He is speaking as a private individual this time, speaking as a true Francophile and speaking in French. Now he says softly, in response to the implication that the French behaved badly, “C’est vrai, c’est vrai.” There is real sadness in his voice, real chagrin over history of the sort the film’s title refers to. Eden’s public self suddenly gives way to something we cannot help feeling as terribly personal for him. It is a moment at which he comes to contain the irreconcilable oppositions of history much as Col. Herbert, Vaillant-Couturier and so many others do in The Memory of Justice.

The most generous emotion to be found in The Memory of Justice is the magnanimity of victims for their persecutors, and among the most clear-cut examples of it are those provided by Yehudi Menuhin and Fritz Kortner. Neither were victims of Nazism in the sense that Vaillant-Couturier or Bettelheim were, but both had to become exiles because of Nazism, and exiles, moreover, from a country and a culture they had always loved. When the war was over, both men returned to Germany to perform again as soon as was possible, and in their interviews in the film Menuhin and Kortner’s widow, Johanna Hofer, try to explain why. It is significant, too, that Ophuls should have found two performing artists to represent such sentiment, for when all is said and done it is as an artist, rather than an intellectual or a polemicist, that Ophuls conceives himself. At the news conference after the press screening of the film, one critic lamented that Ophuls did not make his own position on the issues in the film clear enough. But the reason is that he did not really have a “position” as such. The whole point of his film is the refusal to see political conflicts in ideological terms, and the only wisdom the film ultimately offers is the paradoxical sort that art offers—the sort to be found in high tragedy, which is always very pessimistic about the affairs of state but very affirmative of man himself. This is the feeling with which we come away from The Memory of Justice.

In light of the film’s relevance to an American audience, it is interesting how much less stir it has caused than The Sorrow and the Pity did here. The only controversy the film has provoked came before anyone had seen it, when David Denby wrote an article for The New York Times arguing that the original producers give Ophuls control of the film again so he could complete and release it. (They were eventually bought out by interests sympathetic to Ophuls.) But that controversy is now beginning to look like the gesture made by the man in a bar who announces he will defend to the death the right of another customer to say what he thinks, but then himself refuses to listen to what the other man has to say. Alfred Kazin has not come forward, as he did after The Sorrow and the Pity had had its Film Festival premiere, to advise that we should all be sure to see this film. The Memory of Justice opened in the same New York theatre outside which long lines stood in mid-winter to see The Sorrow and the Pity several years ago; and after a few weeks of playing to a sparse house, The Memory of Justice closed without a ripple.

Emile de Antonio’s excellent documentary on Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig, which was made during the war, also had difficulty finding an audience. The obvious answer is that we do not want to go and see a film like this precisely because it is relevant to us. The Memory of Justice is a hard, hard film for us to watch, and we all know it. Because we know it, the crowds who saw and discussed The Sorrow and the Pity have suddenly disappeared. We have managed not to notice that The Memory of Justice is around, much as we are managing not to remember these days that there was a Vietnam War. That is too bad. At the end of a discussion such as this I often like to say, especially if the film’s reputation is still in doubt, that we shall have to wait and see whether it proves as durable as I am claiming it is. But there is no doubt in my mind about this film. It is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, perhaps the greatest. It is certainly the greatest I have ever seen.

Colin L. Westerbeck. Jr. is the film critic for Commonweal.