Horror in the court: Nuremberg trial documentary film finally reaches U.S.

Auschwitz has become universally synonymous with the horrors of the Holocaust and man’s infinite capacity for evil. But how did Auschwitz-Birkenau function as a 24/7 death camp, and who were the men who operated the gears and levers of the killing machine?

The answers, or better, a glimpse of the answers, are found in the 1993 documentary “Verdict on Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965,” which is being shown for the first time in the United States.

The film lasts three full hours, but it is a mere capsule of the longest trial in German history. It lasted 20 months and included 22 defendants, 360 witnesses from 19 countries, batteries of lawyers, and was covered by 200 journalists. The mere reading of the verdict by the presiding judge took 11 hours.

Filmmakers Rolf Bickel and Dietrich Wagner culled their material from 430 hours of original audiotapes of the trial, which they discovered in the basement of the Frankfurt building where the trial was held.

On the defendants’ bank sat 22 former SS men, now paunchy and middle-aged in sober civilian suits. These were not the big shots like Auschwitz commandants Rudolf Hoess or Arthur Libehenschel, who had been executed in Poland shortly after the war. Rather, they were the middle- to low-level functionaries, the hands-on torturers and killers, who had distinguished themselves by their brutality and dedication to the job at hand.

The documentary complements the audio from the trial with visuals of the Nazi era and death camps and features extensive in-person interviews with prosecutors and others involved in the trial.By the nature of the subject, this is a difficult, often agonizing, film to watch, with few lighter moments. One is inadvertently supplied by defense attorney Hans Laternser, who gives new meaning to the word chutzpah.

Laternser argues that the SS men who took part in the selection process as the trains pulled into the camp actually saved lives by assigning some of the men and women to forced labor. If his clients hadn’t done so, he proposes, all the arrivals would have been killed right away.

The protracted jury trial of the 22 defendants ended with six life sentences, three acquittals and the rest handed prison terms ranging from three to 14 years.

For all its historical and educational value, the trial, and by extension the film, lacks one important dimension. While Auschwitz-Birkenau was certainly a killing field for vast numbers of Roma (gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war and political offenders, the vast majority of victims were Jews.

Yet, in focusing on the nuts and bolts on how Auschwitz functioned, the presence of the victims, particularly the Jewish ones, fades into a kind of amorphous background.

“Verdict on Auschwitz” opens Jan. 26 at Laemmle’s downtown Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St.

Burton’s ‘Corpse’ Has Jewish Bones

Once upon a time, a bridegroom jokingly recited his marriage vows over a skeletal finger protruding from the earth. After placing his ring on the bone, his mirth turned to horror when a grasping hand burst forth, followed by a corpse in a tattered shroud, her dead eyes staring as she proclaimed, “My husband!”

This chilling Jewish folk tale hails from a cycle of stories about the great 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, in what is now northern Israel, said Howard Schwartz, a top Jewish folklorist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It also apparently inspired Tim Burton’s charmingly ghoulish animated film, “Corpse Bride.” Yes, the film features a bridegroom who accidentally weds a cadaver. But the feature eschews the folk tale’s grotesquerie for romanticized gloom and Halloweeny fun — a trademark of Burton fare such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Corpse Bride” is among more than a dozen fantasy films slated to open this year, including Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which some analysts attribute to the yen for escapist cinema during wartime.

“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges (voiced by Burton’s real-life fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine.

“When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said.

The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. On these occasions, a maggot pal pops out of her exposed eye socket. This damsel-past-distress whisks Victor off to the Land of the Dead, a lively place where skeletons party, forcing Victor to leave his living fiancée (voiced by Emily Watson) bereft.

So why did Burton — who is known to dress like a mortician — brighten the Jewish tale?

“We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” said co-screenwriter John August, who also wrote Burton’s “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“The parts that are ‘scary’ are really parodies of classic horror-film moments, such as when our bride’s detached hand crawls after Victor.” The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”

Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.

“It seemed right for this particular type of [stop-motion] animation,” Burton said in an interview with studio publicists. “It’s like casting — you want to marry the medium with the material.”

The director saw elements in the tale that he could transform to match his love of protagonists who seem bizarre but who are actually tragic and isolated. In interviews, Burton has traced this preoccupation to his lonely childhood as an eccentric, artistic boy growing up in Burbank. No wonder his characters have included the titular disfigured innocent in “Edward Scissorhands,” the reclusive Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and now the corpse bride.

“On the surface, she appears to be a monster but in fact she is kind and sweet and misunderstood,” screenwriter August said.

The Jewish folk obsession with the macabre — encompassing tales such as the corpse bride — comes from strikingly different cultural sensibilities than Burton’s obsessions, said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism.

“Over the centuries, the Jews were very helpless and very beset by outside forces,” Giller said. “Bad luck could always come about, and it was a real act of Providence that bore a couple to the wedding canopy.”

Schwartz, author of “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), retells the corpse tale in his 1987 book, “Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural” (Oxford University Press), in a story titled, “The Finger.” His source was the 17th-century volume, “Shivhei ha-Ari,” which collected earlier stories about the alleged feats of the real Rabbi Luria. The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. He is a member of the rabbinic court (the beit din) that eventually rules against the corpse, stating that she is not married because the dead have no claim upon the living, among other reasons.

The real Luria lived in the 16th century, but the origin of tales about nuptials with supernatural entities is far earlier. Schwartz traces them to a biblical commentary that suggests Adam had an insubordinate first wife, Lilith, who became a seductive demon. Later variations on this storyline include “the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said.Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (also the subject of a new movie), the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior.

“It tells us, ‘Be careful, don’t ever take an oath in vain. Don’t take it lightly,'” said Peninnah Schram, a professional Jewish storyteller and associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College in New York.

In “The Finger,” the wayward bridegroom gets lucky. After the rabbis rule against the validity of the corpse’s marriage to the careless suitor, the would-be bride — after emitting one last shriek — collapses in a pile of bones and dies, this time for keeps.

The movie has a more Hollywood kind of ending, with that Tim Burton twist.

“Tim’s characters tend to wear darker colors and some, like the corpse bride, are no longer living, but they have a pluck and a spirit that makes you fall in love with them,” August said.

“Corpse Bride” opens Friday in theaters.


Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories

At one point in the play, “Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories,” a yeshivabocher and a severed talking head careen across the Abyss. The Baal Shem Tov battles a werewolf. And a hapless youth accidentally marries a re-animated corpse, which nonchalantly re-adjusts an eye-socket while pleading its case before the rabbinical court.

Welcome to “Kabbalah,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek macabre fare one might expect from director Stuart Gordon, best known for the horror cult classic film, “Re-Animator.” When Gordon explores his Jewish roots, you get tales of debauched Kabbalists, shtetl zombies and water demons in the mikvah. But because these are Jewish scary stories, the director notes, there is always a moral, a battle between good and evil, and a wise rabbi to make everything right.

Gordon first thought up the play not long after his adult bar mitzvah in 1997, when he chanced upon folklorist Howard Schwartz’s edition of scary Jewish folk tales, “Lilith’s Cave,” at a Temple Beth Hillel book fair. The amiable Gordon, director of “Dolls” and “From Beyond,” had previously read Midrashim about the supernatural and had even researched a script about the demon-queen Lilith for “Hellraiser IV” — until the producers nixed the idea. “They said it was too far afield,” Gordon recalls, wryly. “But it started to bother me that demonic possession movies were always Catholic.”

With the tales in “Lilith’s Cave,” Gordon saw the potential for a Jewish horror movie and also a play; the piece would be performed in the style of his mentor, Paul Sills, a founder of Second City and the Story Theatre, in which the actors narrate their own action. Enter comedian Avery Schreiber, a veteran of both Second City and the Store Theatre, who brought actors from his own improv workshop and, with Gordon and the other performers, improvised the script from Schwartz’s translations. An elderly Yiddishist, a Holocaust survivor, was on set to consult with the thespians. And when Gordon saw the Golden State Klezmers perform with a mariachi group at Temple Isaiah, he knew he had found the perfect live incidental music.

What is surprising about Gordon, who grossed out his “Re-Animator” actors by taking them to the county morgue, is that he actually has a horror of horror films. When he was a child, his parents did not allow him to watch any scary movies; thus he sneaked out of the house to see “The Tingler” or “House on Haunted Hill,” only to suffer grievous nightmares and insomnia afterwards. Gordon recalls a “wild escape from the drive-in” mid-way through a David Cronenberg movie; he slept with all the windows locked, one summer, after reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” “I would rather have sweltered,” he says, dryly, “than let a vampire in.”

Directing scary movies, he concedes, is a way of mastering his fears. “When you make horror film, you’re controlling them,” he explains. “You know how everything is done.”

Gordon’s career began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his anti-Establishment Screw Theater made the national news (and brought obscenity charges) after he staged a nude version of “Peter Pan.” When the university informed him that a professor would have to sit in on any future productions, he dropped out and moved to Chicago, where the Screw transformed into the acclaimed Organic Theater. It was there that Gordon co-created the long-running “Bleacher Bums” and met a cocky young David Mamet, who kept pestering him with scripts he assured everyone would win the Pulitzer Prize. Gordon went on to stage the world premiere of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

Thirty-five original plays and adaptations later, Gordon moved to Hollywood, directed films like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and co-created “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when his daughters clamored for him to make a movie he would actually let them see.

Now he’s hoping to direct a film based on Schwartz’s book, perhaps a Lilith trilogy or something about the fallen Kabbalist Joseph della Reina, who chants the “Shema” backwards to conjure up lovely women in his bedroom. Joseph, after all, rivals the creepiest of contemporary horror characters. “He is,” Gordon says, “the ultimate stalker.”

“Kabbalah” plays on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Jan. 7 through Feb. 13 at the Lex Theater, 6760 Lexington Ave, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 957-5782.