After directing such divertissements as Banana Peel (1964), Marcel Ophuls—the son of famed filmmaker Max (La Ronde, Lola Montès)—embarked on an ambitious documentary about the collaboration during WW2 between France’s Vichy government and Nazi Germany: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). Sorrow has turned up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ within the past year (I know this to be so because it’s still on my DVR) and is a firm favorite of many (some have posited that it’s the best movie doc ever) but none more than Woody Allen; he references it in Annie Hall (1977), and Sorrow’s DVD release (from our good friends at Milestone) proudly proclaims “Woody Allen presents.”
Ophuls followed Sorrow with 1972’s A Sense of Loss, which focuses on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, and after that Marcel tackled the audacious The Memory of Justice (1973). I say audacious because while Justice explores the touchy topic of war atrocities (using the Nuremberg trials as a focal point—Ophuls gained access to over 50 hours of raw footage shot by the U.S. Army Signal Corps), it courts controversy by drawing parallels to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the French in Algeria. It was the heavy concentration on Nuremberg that rubbed some of the documentary’s investors the wrong way (they argued the filmmaker should have afforded more attention to the U.S.-in-Vietnam angle and the deplorable acts of the Russians in WW2), and a heated disagreement between them and Ophuls resulted in his firing from the film (though other accounts state that Marcel retreated from the project).
A black-and-white print of The Memory of Justice was eventually smuggled out of the editing suite in London and made its way to New York, where it would be championed by the likes of future publisher/social activist Hamilton Fish as well as film critics Frank Rich and David Denby (who penned an article about the film’s in-limbo status for The New York Times). Director Mike Nichols also fell in love with the film and used his industry connections to get financial backing for Justice through Paramount. Justice was screened at Cannes in 1976 (though it wasn’t entered in the main competition) and received rave reviews from Rich and Vincent Canby…but any further inroads for the documentary were blocked by influential critic Pauline Kael (a champion of Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity), who panned it in The New Yorker. The film that Ophuls has called “the most personal and sincere work I’ve ever done”—was “off the grid” where movie mavens were concerned.
Director Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation would eventually come to the rescue, spearheading a decade-long restoration process that saw Justice screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015, and at the BFI London Film Festival a month later. Two years later, The Memory of Justice premiered over HBO2 in April of 2017 to positive critical acclaim…and when DISH bestowed upon the House of Yesteryear an HBO “freeview” I tracked down Justice on HBO On Demand and downloaded it to watch (I had just seen The Sorrow and the Pity…and had previously viewed Ophuls’ Oscar-winning Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie during my halcyon Ballbuster Blockbuster days). The window for On-Demand offerings is usually thirty days, but owing to a multitude of outside assignments I couldn’t seem to make time for the movie. I downloaded it a second and third time during additional “freeview” opportunities…and yet again, couldn’t fit Justice into the schedule (the film runs four hours and 42 minutes). As they say, the fourth time’s the charm. (Okay…maybe they don’t really say that.)
I found The Memory of Justice to be a most compelling movie; I can see why Ophuls thinks highly of it, even though I’d probably agree with Kael that The Sorrow and the Pity is a skosh better. (Just a skosh.) What makes Justice a must-see has been nicely stated by The Huffington Post’s Matthew Jacobs when he observes the movie “might as well have been made yesterday.” At a time when the nominee to be the next head of the CIA is being touted by colleagues and politicians despite her history of violating U.S. law prohibiting torture, Justice is a sobering reminder that—to paraphrase the film—”the victors sit in judgment of the vanquished.” “Today torture has become as international as anything else,” observes violinist Yehudi Menuhin in Justice. “I mean, the means, the know-how, is supplied by the United States and Russia and is practiced in Brazil and in Chile. And we must combat universal evil; which is no longer confined to borders or to systems.” (It has not gone unnoticed that Gina Haspel—the CIA nominee from earlier in this paragraph—has pledged not to reinstate the Agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program while refusing to outright condemn the practice. I strongly suspect this is because the program is still in place, which means she can make good on her promise on that score.)
There are a great many eye-opening moments in The Memory of Justice, but the most thought-provoking for me comes from Dr. Gustave Mark Gilbert, whose observations of Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg Trials—including Hermann Wilhelm Göring—were later published in his book Nuremberg Diary:
Nuremberg was an illustration on an international level of whether there is such a thing as international morality. And, of course, Göring had plenty of nose-thumbing to do at me over that!
He said, “Oh, of course the people don’t want war; but what the hell have they got to say about it?”
I said, “Now, wait a minute, in a democracy only the people, through their representatives can declare war, there’s no dictator who can just declare for his own ambition that the nation will be plunged into war.” Of course, at that time, I didn’t know about Vietnam.
But anyway, I did ask that question and I got the following answer: “Well, it makes no difference whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship or anything. All you have to do is tell the people they’re being attacked. And you throw the pacifist into jail for threatening the security of the nation. And then they’ll all clamor for war just as easy as that.” (Snaps fingers)
“Now, to give the devil his due,” concludes Gilbert, “the cynic was partly right.” I must be an even bigger cynic…since I can’t find one untruth in that statement. The Memory of Justice is a long movie requiring much patience, but as the New York Times’ Canby wrote: “…it rivets the mind and the emotions so consistently that I can think of a dozen ninety-minute movies far more difficult to endure.”