The Perpetrators
Wed, 09/15/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Scene from “Nuremberg.”
Scene from “Nuremberg.”

Two new documentaries being shown back to back as part of Film Forum’s fall schedule — “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” and “Robert Lifton: Nazi Doctors” — shine yet another light on the ghastly enormity of the Nazis’ crimes and our inability to grasp those barbarous acts.

Eighteen years later, Gitai revisited the house for a second film, “A House in Jerusalem,” and last year, he made one more pilgrimage to the building for his most recent documentary, “News from Home/News From House,” a handsome and intelligent rumination on more than two decades of uneasy living in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two complement one another in interesting ways, both cinematically and in their attitude towards the perpetrators of the Shoah.

Actually, “Nuremberg” isn’t a new film, strictly speaking. The original film was shown to Germans in 1948-’49 as part of de-Nazification, in hopes of educating them to the crimes of their former leaders, as if only party members had been involved and everyone else was kept in the dark.

The film had been made by Stuart Schulberg (brother of famous screenwriter-novelist Budd, who helped assemble the footage used by the prosecution at Nuremberg) for the War Department and U.S. Military Government. After its brief official run in Occupied Germany, the film sat on a shelf, its original elements deteriorating until Sandra Schulberg (Stuart’s daughter) and Josh Waletzky decided to resurrect it. The soundtrack was essentially gone and the original negative was nowhere to be found.

Thanks to their intensive labors, the film was finally restored to something like its original form, with Liev Schreiber supplying the narration and some of the original courtroom proceedings on the soundtrack.

The result is a fascinating time capsule, a piece of history on a deadline, like a newspaper account. The format of the film, a compression of several months’ events into 80 minutes, is a good example of a rather old-fashioned style — emphatic and slightly mechanical — that one seldom sees anymore except on some of the cheesier cable networks. Yet there are historical lessons to be learned from it after all.

Perhaps the most useful lesson is to be gleaned from the fact that the persecution and murder of the Jews doesn’t come up until 45 minutes into the film.

Understandably, this issue is of paramount concern to readers of this newspaper, but for the Allies, Nuremberg was first and foremost about the waging of aggressive war, and the use of particularly hideous means to do so. Once the Shoah is brought up, however, the filmmakers, like the prosecutors, hold back nothing.

In the view of the prosecution, guilt for these crimes rests on the Nazi institutions and leaders. They are denounced repeatedly as conspirators, and the complicity of the German people and the frequent participation of those occupied by them is never broached. (In fact, the French were part of the prosecution.) There were many reasons for this approach, but most had to do with a lack of the knowledge and understanding that we have acquired after another six decades of study and research.

By contrast, “Robert Lifton: Nazi Doctors,” directed by Hannes Karnick and Wolfgang Richter, is a state-of-the-art contemporary documentary in structure and appearance, shot in beautiful, rich color; it is composed of long takes of Robert Jay Lifton recounting the findings of his lengthy research into the post-war situations and rationalizations of doctors who had served the Reich in Auschwitz and the “euthanasia” killing centers. It is punctuated by lengthy shots of the Cape Cod environment that surrounds Lifton’s home. This description isn’t meant sarcastically; it’s just a note on the changing styles of the documentary; in fact, the film is both handsomely made and deeply thoughtful.

The film’s content consists entirely of Lifton being interviewed by the filmmakers, and his voice, calm, rational and thoughtful, occupies most of the film’s soundtrack. With his psychiatric training and medical background (and his Jewishness, which he withheld from the ex-Nazis), he is the ideal person to explain the inexplicable behavior of men trained to heal who chose to kill. It is precisely this “reversal of healing and killing” that interested Lifton, and among the conclusions he reaches is the telling one, “If a whole society including the professionals, the doctors in particular, can be socialized to killing . . . it makes genocide much easier to carry out.”

What Lifton found in post-war Germany — ex-Nazi doctors who seemed to be prosperous, and “collusion [that] ran very deep into the heart of the German medical establishment” — gives the lie to the larger conclusions of “Nuremberg.” Yet we are still left groping in a dimly lit room, looking for answers that may not entirely exist.

Dr. Lifton puts it best at the outset of the film about his work: “One can only do so much and . . . one has to fail to comprehend the entire event. It’s elusive. But one can capture or illuminate some small portion of it.”

Perhaps, given enough filmmakers, writers and scholars illuminating a sufficient number of small portions of the Shoah, we may eventually achieve a glimmer of understanding.

“Nuremberg” will play Sept. 28 at the New York Film Festival, to be followed by a panel discussion that will include participants in the tribunals and in the restoration of the film. The film opens at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) the following day and runs through Oct. 5. ; “Robert Jay Lifton: The Nazi Doctors” opens Oct. 6 and plays at Film Forum through Oct. 12. For information, go to www.filmforum.org.