Carroll's personal anguish in this film, I believe, mirrors the conflict that every viewer should feel in intellectually considering the myths of one's religious beliefs. For example, in one of the DVD "extra scenes," a Jewish activist commiserates with Carroll about his concern that his religion often holds itself up as being holy, perfect, and infallible. How unrealistic. I thoroughly appreciated hearing about Carroll's internal struggles with his faith and his religion - as well as his conflict with his father. Lofty philosophical and religious ideas do not exist in a vacuum. A religion is not just principles of faith. It is also the people who express that faith, whether Haggart, Constantine or the Pope, and the actions they take or fail to take.
Carroll's focus on attempts by evangelicals to proselytize at the Air Force Academy, and to use Academy cadets to proselytize non-Christians is, in my opinion, a perfect example of one of the core issues raised in his book: A religion that can sometimes be a force for good, kindness and compassion can also be a force for intolerance, hatred, and holy war. Also, another core issue is that some "true believers" -- e.g., those who proselytize their faith to convert non-believers -- are blind to the harm that they cause, are ignorant of the myths they assume are true, and some are -- e.g., in Haggart's case -- just plain hypocrites. And I find this to be true of the intolerant fundamentalists in my religion - Judaism - from my own personal experience. Carroll's film might focus on Constantine, the Air Force evangelicals, and Catholicism, but it raises universal issues of myth-making, ignorance, intolerance and xenophobia applicable to other faiths and other circumstances.
I do not fault this film in any way. It is an excellent introduction to all the issues. It is intended to make some people uncomfortable and to encourage many people to study the issues in greater depth.
For those who want to read more about the Air Force Academy and the evangelicals, I recommend the article "Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military" by Jeff Sharlet in the May 2009 Harper's Magazine.
Those who want to read more about antisemitism, the myth of Jewish "deicide" (i.e., killing Jesus), the Crusades, the Inquisition, the blood libels, and other examples of Christian acts against Jews, there are many volumes in your library or available by inter-library loan. Unfortunately, these books don't get checked out much, which seems to support another point raised by this film: some people prefer to believe the myths and remain ignorant of the facts.
According to an article in the 2007 ABA Journal: The defense attorneys, Armani and Belge, "received widespread support from the legal profession, but in the court of public opinion, they didn't fare much better than their client." They were widely reviled by non-lawyers. Their law practices withered. They received hate mail and death threats. Longtime friends stopped speaking to them. They had to move out of their homes. Belge eventually gave up his law practice. Armani suffered a heart attack. A grand jury investigated both lawyers and indicted Belge. The case against Belge was dismissed in 1975. Finally, a New York State Bar ethics committee upheld the lawyers' conduct, explaining that client confidentiality promotes proper representation by encouraging the client to fully disclose all relevant facts including the commission of prior crimes. In 2006, Armani received a distinguished-lawyer award from the Onondaga County (N.Y.) Bar Association.
It would be unfair to compare this film (and the book it is based upon) to Harper Lee's artistic classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." But the comparison is unavoidable. To the film's credit, this film accurately portrays the public pressure, condemnation, hatred and violent reaction to the lawyers' representation of their awful and thoroughly unredeemable client. And to Armani's and Belge's credit, they were the real-life "Atticus Finch." Their painful ordeal, but heroic conduct, will be studied in law schools for many years.
I don't fault Polanski for not exploring so many of the other issues that he could have raised -- just as I do not criticize Szpilman for not doing more to help others. But I think that the movie could have been better. It could have at least raised the question of selfishness and survival.
Of course, the film made the Holocaust more accessible and more palatable to a wider audience -- particularly to a non-Jewish audience. Szpilman seemed more like a Polish gentleman than the kind of "alien" Jews -- by that I mean the rural, shtetl-based Orthodox Jews -- that the many Poles hated and discriminated against, sometimes just as violently as the Nazis. I suppose that Polanski identified with Szpilman and was particularly horrified that the Holocaust would threaten the lives of cultured, assimilated Jews who were no different than their Polish neighbors. Of course, it is his prerogative to select what Holocaust story to tell. His film is similar to some of the films about Bonhoeffer and other Christians arrested by the Nazis. I just think that other films on this subject -- even those about non-Jews -- were much more illuminating, complex, and dramatic -- like "Schindler's List," "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Amen," and "The Grey Zone."
Though I am a big fan of Mel Brooks, I think that one reason this film succeeds so well is that Robert Aldrich directed it instead of Brooks. In other words, it is essentially a dramatic western that is filled to the brim with comedy -- instead of the other way around. Aldrich had previously directed serious epic westerns, and he became famous in the sixties for directing What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, and The Dirty Dozen. These films, as well as his classic The Longest Yard, showed how infusing humor into serious drama can make plots more interesting and characters more human and sympathetic.
Frank DeVol provided the music ... and you can see him in the part of the old time piano player. DeVol had provided music for a number of Aldrich films, including the five films mentioned in the previous paragraph. He was famous for his comic scores (e.g., Pillow Talk, Cat Ballou, and The Trouble with Angels) and his music for TV series (e.g., My Three Sons, The Brady Bunch, McCloud, and the Love Boat).
Another gem in this film is Harrison Ford -- in a role that seems so second-nature to him, but showcases his versatility. His character is not that much different from Hans Solo. (Star Wars appeared in 1977 and Empire Strikes Back appeared in 1980, while The Frisco Kid came out in 1979.) In fact, it seemed emblematic of the movies in the sixties and seventies that some of our big screen heroes were selfish rogues with a heart of gold. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which came out in 1969.
The executive producer was Hawk Koch, whose father, Howard W. Koch was a Hollywood icon, having produced scores of films, including The Manchurian Candidate and The Odd Couple. This was one of Hawk Koch's first jobs, and he has now been the executive producer of over twenty outstanding features, including Mike Myers' Wayne's World and -- another great comedy exploring religious belief -- Keeping the Faith, with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton.
Finally, because the DVD is not yet available, here's a gem that was not included in the IMDb Memorable Quotes section, though I have edited it to avoid giving too much away for those who haven't seen the film yet:
"Chief Gray Cloud: Yes or no, can your God make rain?"
"Chief Gray Cloud: But he doesn't?"
"Avram: That's right."
"Chief Gray Cloud: Why?"
"Avram: Because that's not his department!"
* * *
"Avram: ... He gives us strength when we're suffering! He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred! He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness! ... "
HOW TRUE! Whether you identify with Gene Wilder's Rabbi or with Harrison Ford's Rogue, this film is filled with valuable lessons. The world is unpredictable. Sometimes we suffer. And sometimes we find strength, courage, compassion, ... and humor to deal with it all.
Did Gerron make the film because he was selfishly trying to save himself and his family? If so ... so what? Wouldn't you have done that? On the other hand, it is even more tragic to think that Gerron probably knew that the Nazis would never let him live -- and that this was his last chance to work -- to be creative -- to be a "macher" -- to have a modicum of control over his life. Like all great artists, he did not want to produce anything less than his best. Certainly, many of the "actors" in the film were forced to pretend to be happy. On the other hand, when you see children eating bread and butter joyfully -- and you know that they would not have such food were it not for this film -- you can imagine that perhaps they were not pretending to enjoy the food. Similarly, the chorale group, the children's musical, and the symphony (performing "Study for Strings," written by Pavel Haas while he was incarcerated in Terezin) were not "pretending." They were enthusiastically displaying their love for their art and their pride of accomplishment. The Nazis should be vilified for their treatment of these artists. But the artists have nothing to be ashamed of.
The film raises more questions than it answers. And some of the answers it suggests may not be convincing. But that is another reason why this film is deeply moving and valuable.
This is an extremely well-made documentary -- excellently preserving much archival film footage. Ian Holm is an outstanding narrator. And the moments we see Gerron's acting and hear his singing are likely to encourage you to want to rent several of his films. Nominated for the 2003 Oscar -- amongst Spellbound, Winged Migration and Bowling for Columbine -- this film is further evidence that today's documentary film makers are among the best creative artists in the cinema.
There are several reasons you must see this film. First, it is based on the diary of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew chosen by Josef Mengele to be the head pathologist at Auschwitz. And it dramaticizes the true attempt by Sonderkommandos to destroy the Auschwitz gas chambers.
Second, it focuses on ethical dilemnas faced by Dr. Nyiszli and the various Sonderkommandos who are trying to save themselves, their families, or ... just someone ... anyone. To say that these men were "co-opted" by the Nazis is to ignore the horror of the coercion, debasement and dehumanization that the Nazis inflicted -- not only on their prisoners, but upon themselves. One can imagine that some Sonderkommandos were selfish -- just as some Kapos were cruel and some doctors who assisted the Nazis were accomplices. But the question remains -- what would you have done in the face of such coercion and duress?
Third, the film -- based on Tim Blake Nelson's play -- is not the typical Holocaust film. There is very little redeeming behavior. There is no uplifting ending. The grey zone of moral ambiguity is presented as a cold, unfeeling, horrifying place -- where you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't -- which means that they are all damned! For the first third of the film, the script is obtuse, confusing, and disconnecting -- as it should be, considering that we may as well be taking the point of view of someone who just arrived on a train and entered the gates of hell. How can any of this make sense? In the opening scene, the Doctor is asked to save the life of a Jew who attempted suicide. How absurd can that be -- to save the life of someone who will sooner rather than later be murdered by the Nazis anyway?!
In conclusion, the play/film contains dialogue and scenes that are memorable. This is one of my favorites. One Jewish leader is demanding that they destroy the gas chambers as soon as possible. But another Jewish leader is still planning on escape, arguing that he has every right to expect to live. The first leader replies, something to the effect that, after what he has seen and done, he does not want to live!
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, April 18, 2004. Last night, after seeing a Holocaust documentary on Kurt Gerron ("Prisoner of Paradise") a friend of mine asked me what I would have done? I told her that it would depend on whom I was caring for -- my wife and my daughters -- my parents. It was then that I realized that I would have probably done everything that every Jew did during the Holocaust. I would have tried to save myself and my family. I would have abandoned others -- even betrayed others. I would have killed. I would have fought the Nazis. And I would have probably been killed for it. I would have despaired -- tried suicide -- become depressed, useless to everyone. I don't think I would have survived. I think the only question in that regard -- and it shows how irrelevant the question really is -- is "how soon would I have died." That is why I remember Holocaust Memorial Day -- so that I will never forget -- and I can help work towards a time when such a hell will not occur in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East, in the US, ... anywhere.
Interestingly, the stories were written before Hitler almost completely wiped out Eastern European Jewry --- which adds to the nostalgia of the piece. But Hitler failed in one respect: many Eastern European Jews succeeded in transplanting themselves to the US, where, in spite of overt antisemitism, they and their Judaism flourished because of our wonderful US Constitution and an American spirit that fostered individualism and rewarded hard work. So it is not surprising that Americans Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created this homage to Scholem Aleichem and the Eastern European Jews Hitler tried to destroy.
Many of the songs in this musical are now part of an American culture that is (now) willing to accept Yiddish phrases and Jewish concepts. Now, everyone knows that "L'Chayim" means "To Life." All young girls can identify with ... and laughingly reject ... "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." Every American that has had to work hard every day enjoys singing "If I Were a Rich Man." And songs like "Sabbath prayer" and "Sunrise, Sunset" have become staples of Jewish liturgy as well as songs with which every parent can identify. My favorite song is "Far from the Home I Love."
Could this film have been any better? Perhaps. If you have not heard it, you must listen to the audio recording of the 1964 Original Broadway Cast of Fiddler on the Roof (from RCA), which has Zero Mostel (singing the part of Tevye) as well as Julia Migenes, Bert Convy, and Beatrice Arthur. I would have loved to see Zero Mostel in the movie, but Topol does an excellent job.
Final note: my mother was born in, grew up in, and emigrated from a small town in the Ukraine. Her father had died there. She had several older brothers who did not emigrate and were completely lost by 1945. The memories must have been terribly painful for her because she vehemently refused to speak of them. But she was must have been deeply affected by her childhood -- because she was a hard-working and dedicated mother -- willing to sacrifice her self in order to give her children the best possible future. She was even willing to sacrifice some of the sacred Jewish traditions -- in order to assure that her family survives and thrives. And that is just one of the movie's themes. Another theme: in the midst of pain and loss, there can still be hope.
With actual footage from WWII, this film feels more like a documentary, which of course adds to the drama. The characters -- even the minor ones -- are well drawn and evoke sympathy. Romy Schneider -- a beauty in so many other films -- displays her incredible acting prowess. And Jean-Louis Trintignant, who became well known after "Z" (1969) and "The Conformist" (1970), is incredible: low-keyed, soft-spoken and poignant. Can two people fall in love so quickly? Under such dire circumstances that keep getting worse, this strange romance seems so real.
For the most part, this is not a Holocaust film ... nor a film about Nazi atrocities. But the fear of German aggression is palpable. One character tells another -- as they see the results of the German aircraft bombing: "Close your eyes, you'll never know it happened." This is what all refugees desire -- to escape and forget. But this is a film that doesn't want you to forget the prejudice, selfishness, and other horrors of war. But it also reminds you of the gentleness and humankindness.
"It's them. I'd recognize that sound anywhere." I am reminded of the Holocaust survivor who could not sleep for years because of the sounds she heard in her dreams/nightmares.
The last seven minutes are some of the most frightening and intelligent minutes dealing with the Holocaust even put on film The scene is fraught with danger and filled with possibilities. The ethical dilemma will generate hours of thought and discussion.
But this 1961 film foreshadowed the future Nazi revisionists and Holocaust-deniers. It dealt directly with the need and desire for many Germans and some Americans to refuse to face up to the many daily instances of injustice, cruelty, inhumanity, depravity and murder committed by ordinary Germans -- clerks, railroad employees, bankers, --- as well as the German military, courts, and industrial complex that relied upon slave labor.
It is a shame that Germans thought of the Nuremberg Trials as being unfair because the defendants were simply obeying their legal responsibilities during an ordinary war. But this was no ordinary war. This was genocide and everyone in Germany participated in it. As the film points out ... even the ordinary people who claimed that they did not know about the death camps were fooling or lying to themselves. They knew what Hitler had said about the Jews and promised to do to the Jews. They knew that their Jewish neighbors were taken away ... and with Jewish property taken by the state... the Jews were not coming back. If their crime was merely their willful ignorance of murder ... refusing to acknowledge it and refusing to prevent it ... then the continuing shame exposed by the film is that so many in Germany (as well as Austria, France, Ukraine, Poland, Belgium and other countries where many collaborated with the Germans) would continue to refuse to learn the full extent of the horror.
In addition, the film went further when Lancaster (the former Nazi judge) warns Schell (his defense lawyer) that his defense tactics are once again cruelly persecuting the defenseless. Perhaps it is too shameful for him to admit it, but Lancaster eventually does. He admits that he perverted justice and disregarded the rules of law and morality in collaborating with the Nazis and applying their discriminatory racial laws. Very few Nazis admitted their culpability. Albert Speer did. On the other hand, many Germans preferred to follow Goering's example: to argue that Germany was merely fighting an honorable war, not conducting a genocide.
My father was an interpreter with the US Army during the war. He had assisted in the interrogation of hundreds if not thousands of German prisoners of war. And he told me that not a single German soldier admitted being a member of the Nazi party. So who committed all the crimes? Who ran the death camps? Who arrested the victims and put them on the cattle cars? Why was it so hard to capture these culprits and bring them to trial? How did so many successfully hide in South America and even Europe? And how can it be that over fifty years after WWII anti-semitism is still prominent in Russia, Poland, France et al?
Judgment at Nuremberg is great because it doesn't focus on the Nazi leaders and the death camp commanders. It focuses on the judges who administered the laws, so it deals with the question whether there are laws that are so unjust that no judge should apply them. But is also focuses on the ordinary Germans ... the domestic servants, the Army widow. You could see that they felt some degree of shame ... but they were more concerned with trying to preserve some dignity and some love for their culture and heritage.
The final shame is felt by us ... the viewers ... when we identify with Spencer Tracy's character as he returns to (the normality of) the US. He can turn his back on Germany, the evidence of atrocities, and the need to prosecute any more criminals. Similarly, we turn our backs. Even Lancaster's admission of guilt is not satisfying in the face of so many who deny it. It took a million brave soldiers and workers in the US, Britain and other Allied countries to defeat the Nazis. It would take thousands to continue to prosecute the criminals for their barbarity. Unfortunately, the Allies did not have the stomach for that in the 1940's, 50's or 60's. It was not until 1983 that Nazi hunters were able to find Klaus Barbie. It was not until the 1990's when Swiss banks were willing to discuss claims they had been harboring gold and other valuables that the Nazis had stolen from their victims. There are still many unprosecuted claims against Germany for slave labor and against insurance companies for failing to pay claims. In 1961, as we see in Judgment at Nuremberg, there were many people who felt that enough had been said about the Holocaust. But the reason the subject seems inexhaustible is that we -- the courts, the politicians, the nations, the businesses, and the ordinary people -- have failed to deal with the full scope of criminal and immoral conduct.