Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Remembering Nazi crimes

Film Forum here is showing the documentary Nuremberg, not starring Maximilian Schell, but the real thing with Nazi war criminals in the dock playing themselves. The U.S. suppressed the documentary after it was made—which in itself is undoubtedly material for another entire film—and it is a good corrective to the 1961 courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg created later by Stanley Kramer with a star-studded cast (including William Shatner, of all people).

Seeing the actual footage of the Nuremberg tribunal makes one realize how the sight of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster in the Hollywood version blunted the impact of the historical event. These are actual Nazis fresh from generating the slaughter of 50 million people, including millions of civilians via death chambers and intentional starvation (of which we see plenty).

What’s remarkable about the spectacle is how undramatic many of the creepy figures were in real life. When Otto Funk, the Nazi governor-general of Poland, apologizes from the witness stand you have to blink and slap yourself to recall that this is not a guy who got drunk and ran his car into the neighbor’s yard but the administrator of a territory that included Auschwitz.

Hannah Arendt outlined this phenomenon during the Eichmann trial 15 years later, pointing out that one of the worst criminals in history was little more than an ambitious bureaucrat with a moral blind spot. Her lesson, long since forgotten, is that any society can go nuts and that when atrocities become the new normal, plenty of people will step up to carry out its most heinous acts as soon as they get an impressive job title and a nice office.

Nuremberg also provides the uncomfortable reminder that a major portion of the indictment against the Nazi leadership was for ‘crimes against peace’. Justice Robert Jackson’s ringing accusation charged them with waging ‘aggressive war’ and explicitly stated that the Allied court was to provide a permanent warning to anyone else who tried it. Although war crimes such as murder of prisoners and ‘crimes against humanity’ were also included, the Nazis were sentenced, sometimes to death, for their conspiracy to engage in war for conquest. It isn’t hard to think of more recent examples in which the charges would stick just as easily.

No comments: