Day of Wrath, a movie about 17th Century women accused and condemned of witchcraft, was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and released just months after the Nazis dissolved the Protectorate Government, announced martial law and began hunting for Danish Jews.
But there are no “Righteous” in Day of Wrath. Anne falls in love with her husband’s son, and the two start an affair. Dreyer portrays Anne in the most sympathetic light he can — their sinning takes place in sunny meadows and they are the only happy scenes in a film primarily composed of dour faces. But Anne won’t recognize her sin, and she (rather justifiably) wishes her husband dead.
This moral ambiguity adds to the idea that Anne can symbolize Denmark. At the time of filming, the nation was actively cooperating with the Nazis. Now that collaboration has been condemned, and rightfully so. But that collaboration likely saved countless lives, and prevented the Holocaust from spreading north. Denmark’s deal (collaboration to save Jews) could be allegorized as Anne’s deal (consummation to save witches).
Other references to the occupation can be found in the rumors that the blonde-haired Anne’s mother may have secretly been a witch (read: Jew), and in the torture and “interrogation” of the kangaroo court. Even here, Dreyer’s condemnation is double-edged: in 1943 the Danish Church protected the Jews. But the 17th Century setting reminds one that the Nazis did not invent European anti-Semitism, and implicates the church for its sins as well. The film is inspired by an actual witch trial. (Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon likewise explores the roots of Nazism in Europe’s past)
In the end, the Day of Wrath comes for everyone. The repentant are tortured by their own consciences. The unrepentant are burned at the stake.
The 9 1/2 hour film Shoah consists of eyewitness testimony of those who participated in and were the victims of the slaughter of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime. Claude Lanzmann interviews survivors, former Nazis, train drivers, and neighbors. There is no archival footage – Lanzmann overlays the interviews with footage of how the extermination camps looked when he arrived, in the 1980’s.
The Holocaust was still a memory when Lanzmann took up his camera in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The film is as far removed from the events as a film about U.S. involvement in Vietnam would be today. I’ve had the privilege of hearing from two concentration camp survivors in person. When Lanzmann travelled to villages in Poland, he was swarmed in the streets by curious people who were eager to about life in a town where hundreds of thousands were put to death.
Shortly after the end of the war, it was decided to cast the German populace as good people, seduced by their wicked leaders. How could such a civilized nation be tricked into doing such barbarous deeds? Propaganda, socialism, poverty, and insufficient commitment to Western liberalism usually get the blame. But in political debate, it’s hard to find something that won’t “eventually lead to the Holocaust!”
Lanzmann simplifies all this. The Holocaust happened because people hate Jews. The Poles he interviews are what Americans would call “casual racists.” When Lanzmann brings an extermination camp survivor back to the town that let the Nazis take him away, they talk about how glad they are to see their Jewish friend again — while one man recites the Christ-killer myth in front of a church Jews were rounded up in, oblivious to his own anti-Semitism.
Lanzmann is able to confront us, his audience, with the historical reality of the Holocaust. It’s not an abstract philosophical point that can be used to criticize contemporary politics (Munich, Fahrenheit 9/11, X-Men: Origins) or subject matter for Oscar-bait (Schindler’s List, The Pianist).
His interviews with the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust are disturbing. Some of them use a hidden camera, recording Lanzmann’s promise that the subject only being interviewed for background. (Lanzmann’s autobiography The Patagonian Hare goes into fascinating detail about his deception.)
None of them are willing to take responsibility for any of their actions. Each assures Lanzmann they themselves had nothing against the Jews and were ‘only following orders.’ Franz Suchomel even absurdly argues with Lanzmann about the number of people the Nazis could kill in one day at Treblinka:
Lanzmann: To “process” 18,000 people, to liquidate them… Suchomel: Mr. Lanzmann, that’s an exaggeration. Believe me. Lanzmann: How many? Suchomel: 12,000 to 15,000. But we had to spend half the night at it.
When Lanzmann interviews one of the Nazis in charge of the Warsaw ghetto, he finds more evasion. Dr. Franz Grassler claims to remember very little, (“I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips…”) and takes notes of the dates, acting surprised. (July 7, 1941? That’s the first time I’ve re-learned a date…. So in July I was already there!”) Dr. Grassler recasts the ghettos as a humanitarian mission, meant to keep Jews alive and typhus from spreading.
The travel agent who got the Nazis group discounts on the train tickets they bought for Jews, the SS officer who killed families and the villagers who did nothing were not college students in a Stanley Milgram experiment. Lanzmann intercuts the interviews of the perpetrators with one of historian Raul Hilberg, who famously argued against the “banality of evil” thesis.
But Lanzmann refuses to offer psychological or political excuses. A person does not have to be insane, sadistic, compliant or brainwashed to commit evil. Lanzmann disengages from the ‘comic book Nazi’ and the ‘just following orders’ tropes. He shows us men and women who seem no more remarkable than those we see on trial for murder every day.
The “temporary survivors” attempt to communicate their experience, to preserve their memories. We get photographs that are politicized, a museum that is a destination for weeping tourists, a staged re-production for a commercial film and symbolic story that many, like our Frenchwoman, attempt to find personal meaning in. As our man says, “you saw nothing in Hiroshima.”
Our woman tells her tragedy. For the man it is a piece of psychoanalysis, a way to “understand” his lover and then a triumph when he learns of his exclusive knowledge of her torment. Just as she celebrated in France upon learning of Hiroshima, he celebrated in Hiroshima upon learning of France. He grins and jumps up and dances.
Nevers, France is what began to make our woman what she is today. But now it is “a two-penny romance.”
I sometimes wonder if, like Vlad the Impaler, Adolf Hitler might one day end up as a cartoon character on cereal boxes. But even if his image is kept accurate and the tone of the Holocaust is kept solemn, Nazism is now only a memory to a small few.
Alain Resnais made Night and Fog in 1955, showing archival footage of the concentration camps. His creation was devastating and powerful, but it was not a memory – it was a new thing, an account. He must have had audience reactions to Night and Fog in mind when he struggled with his charge to make a Hiroshima film.
For those of us who were not in New York in September 2001 and did not know anyone involved in the attacks, 9/11 was a national, emotional tragedy. We wept in front of the TV screens and mourned people we never knew. Terrorism felt like an “existential threat,” it felt like “the end of the age of irony.”
For those of us involved in personal tragedy, forgetfulness seems like a betrayal. We feel guilty for not weeping at every memory. Moving on involves forgetting – while refusing to move on transforms mourning from memory to neuroticism.
Whatever Hiroshima means to us today, its not what it meant to those in Hiroshima. And perhaps on August 7, it no longer meant to them what it did on August 6.
I know those law books mean alot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems. – Tom Doniphon
If you let yourself be defeated by them, just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won’t be any methods *but* Nazi methods! If you preach the Rules of the Game while they use every foul and filthy trick against you, they will laugh at you! – Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff
Three of the most recent movies I’ve seen explore the need to go beyond the law in order to protect it. Two John Ford films and one Michael Powell flick ask the question – the bad guys don’t play nice, so why should the good guys?
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sets up the morality play the way countless other Westerns have. James Stewart is an idealistic young lawyer, ready to bring law and order to the town of Shinbone. Shinbone’s marshal is the comic relief, played by Andy Devine. The only protection the villagers have against the murdering thief Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) is Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne.
Stewart starts teaching classes on the law and the constitution. (Perhaps ironically, he has a picture of Abraham Lincoln hung in his classroom – the most famous example of destroying the constitution in order to save it.) But he can’t convince anyone to arrest Valance. Wayne teaches Stewart how to shoot, and *spoiler alert* Liberty Valance gets shot. Civilization’s foundation is ultimately lawless men like Wayne.
My Darling Clementine tells essentially the same story, with Henry Fonda stepping in for Stewart and Doc Holliday as the town’s outlaw protector. Both Westerns are excellent viewing. I used to always want to be Doc Holliday when we played cowboys as kids.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was made in 1943, one of a number of British war films made in the midst of it. It opens with a war game being played by the Home Guard – Major General Wynne-Candy is an old man who organizes the game, announcing that “war begins at midnight!” A young officer on the opposing side decides to make the game “real” and teach Wynne-Candy a lesson. He breaks the rules, starts the game 6 hours early, and takes Wynne-Candy prisoner in the bath.
Through a series of flashbacks, we see the preceding half-century of European warfare, and are told that while war was once between gentlemen who played by the rules, it’s now an anything goes affair.
An exchange between Wynne-Candy and his anti-Nazi German friend is telling:
Theo: I read your broadcast up to the point where you describe the collapse of France. You commented on Nazi methods–foul fighting, bombing refugees, machine-gunning hospitals, lifeboats, lightships, bailed-out pilots–by saying that you despised them, that you would be ashamed to fight on their side and that you would sooner accept defeat than victory if it could only be won by those methods.
Clive: I would!
Theo: Clive! If you let yourself be defeated by them, just because you are too fair to hit back the same way they hit at you, there won’t be any methods *but* Nazi methods! If you preach the Rules of the Game while they use every foul and filthy trick against you, they will laugh at you! They’ll think you’re weak, decadent! I thought so myself in 1919!
It’s rather disturbing to see a German trying to convince an Englishman to use Nazi tactics. Released in 1943, the film opened to large box office business, and seems to have served as a preemptive justification for Dresden. Current American affairs come to mind (Colonel Blimp and W.were released on Blu-Ray on the same day without anyone remarking) as do counterinsurgencies in places like Algeria, Afghanistan and Vietnam where Western powers failed because of backlash against the tactics Kretschmar-Schuldorff recommends.
Atrocities can and do work — but only if the voting populace is either unaware of them or is comfortable with them. This is why Colonel Blimp‘s first flashback storyline consists of a young Wynne-Candy flying off to German in order to deny the existence of concentration camps set up by his government in the Boer Wars.
Of course, a complete picture is much more nuanced. Stewart in Liberty Valance and Fonda in Clementine shoot at instead of arrest their outlaw enemies, but they acted morally. For the most part – and especially compared to the Nazis – the British acted morally in World War II. Punctilious deification of the Rule of Law isn’t moral, and it would have clearly been unethical for the Allies to allow the Nazis to take over Europe.
However, while acting outside the written law, there’s still an ethical code to be followed. John Ford’s films contain that nuance, but I’m not sure Colonel Blimp does.