September 23, 2019

Nazis, newspapers and Nuremberg

Once again, the summer season, noted for youth-oriented blockbusters, manages to include some serious fare aimed at more mature, discerning audiences, including several projects dealing with the World War II era and its aftermath.

The filmmakers of “The Debt,” a Nazi-hunter movie slated to open Aug. 31, could not have planned their release any better. The movie, which arrives on the heels of the American assassination of Osama bin Laden, concerns three Mossad agents who become iconic figures for having hunted down and killed a Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). The plot cuts back and forth between the 1960s, when the capture and killing is reported to have occurred, and the late 1990s, when the three are confronted by unexpected and unsettling events. “The Debt” is double-cast, with one set of actors playing the Israeli agents during the earlier time period and another set portraying the three some 30 years later. The older version of the central character is played by Helen Mirren, the younger one by Jessica Chastain.

Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) said he was attracted to the material because he felt it had the potential to engage audiences on several levels.

“It has to do with people accounting for sins of the past, as it were — in particular, the pursuit of a Nazi war criminal, and the bringing of that person to justice. So the material is compelling to start with. It’s also an extraordinarily good thriller. It has a great narrative. But, above and beyond that, and this is what’s unusual about it, it has a psychological and emotional complexity, and, indeed, a moral complexity that is unusual to find in contemporary thrillers.” 

Madden continued, “It’s about the relationship between present and past, not just in the whole idea of what does it means to bring somebody to justice some period of time after those events have been supposedly committed. … But, the film is also about moral responsibility.”

The moral and legal responsibility of the major Nazi perpetrators was ultimately determined in the precedent-setting war crimes trial at Nuremberg, which was documented in 1948 by Stuart Schulberg in his film “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.” The doc consists of highlights from the trial, including the legendary opening and closing speeches by Justice Robert H. Jackson, and presentations by prosecutors from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The prosecution bolstered its case using footage that Schulberg and his brother, Budd, had helped assemble from the Nazis’ own films and photographs, along with motion pictures taken as the Allies liberated some of the concentration camps, and the documentary interweaves that material with the trial segments.

Although shown in Germany after the war, “Nuremberg” was never released in the United States. Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, spent some five years restoring her father’s film so it could be shown in this country. 

“If I were not a professional film producer,” Sandra Schulberg said, “it might never have occurred to me to restore the film and try to get it released in the U.S. But, faced with the facts — the fascinating mystery of what had happened to ‘Nuremberg’ after its German release — this seemed to be my schicksal, my fate. ‘If not I, then who?’ I thought. ‘If not now, when?’ ” 

Schulberg also wanted to find out exactly why her late father’s film had been suppressed in this country.

“In the fall of 1949, nearly a year after the German release of the film,” she said, “John Norris, a reporter for The Washington Post, began an investigation. His first story, dated Sept. 19, was headlined: ‘Army Reluctant To Clarify Inaction On Nuremberg Film.’ ”

As part of his article, Norris wrote: “It is known that strong forces in the Army opposed the entire war crimes program from the beginning — or at least after it was decided to try German army chiefs and general staff members. Army Secretary Kenneth Royall and Undersecretary Draper were said to be in this camp and clearly were in favor of rebuilding Germany as a bulwark against communism. Too quickly and with too little regard for a resurgence of Nazism, some said.”

Kristin Scott Thomas in “Sarah’s Key.” Photo by Hugo Production/JulienBonet

Schulberg explained that Norris’ charges were substantiated by a letter from Secretary Kenneth Royall, addressed to Justice Jackson.

“To my surprise,” she said, “the letter is dated November 1948, almost a year before The Washington Post got on top of the story. Royall writes to Jackson: ‘In this country no general release is under consideration. It is my opinion that the theme is contrary to present policies and aims of the government; therefore it is felt that the picture at this time can be of no significant value to the Army and Nation as a whole.’ ”

Now, more than 60 years after it was made, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today [The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]” is being seen by American audiences for the first time.

The documentary has a one-week exclusive engagement, June 3-9, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, and Sandra Schulberg will appear on June 3 at the 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. screenings; and on June 4 and 5 at the 12:45, 3, 5:15, 7:30 and 9:45 screenings.

Another film that involves the Nazi era is the French offering, “Sarah’s Key,” scheduled for a June 3 release. As with “The Debt,” this movie goes back and forth in time. It begins in 1942, during the German occupation of France. Ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) is playing with her younger brother Michel (Paul Mercier) when the French police, who are arresting Jews in the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, knock on their door. To protect him from being captured, Sarah locks her brother in a cabinet, tells him not to move until she returns, and keeps the key as she and her parents (Natasha Mashkevich, Arben Bajraktaraj) are taken to a stadium, the Velodrome, where thousands of Jews are held under inhuman conditions. Sarah, desperate to return home and free her brother, is ultimately transported to a camp and housed with other children. She and a friend escape and eventually are given refuge by a couple (Niels Arestrup, Dominique Frot ) who live on a farm. When the couple finally takes her back to her old apartment, now occupied by another family, she makes a devastating discovery.

The present-day story centers on Julia Armand (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist, who is in France compiling a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv. In the course of her research she is stunned to discover that the apartment she and her French husband, Bertrand (Frédéric Pierrot), plan to occupy was once the Starzynskis’ apartment and was obtained by Bertrand’s family shortly after the Starzynskis were arrested. She then goes on a quest to find out what happened to Sarah, who was raised by the French farmers as their daughter. In the course of her search, which ends in Brooklyn, layers of secrets are uncovered.

During an interview with reporter Gaynor Flynn that appeared in the Australian publication The Blurb, director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who is Jewish, said that the story had personal meaning for him because he lost some of his family in concentration camps.

But he stressed in the interview that he wanted Sarah to be a symbol of what can happen to any group, not only to Jews, and he pointed out that such a character could easily be from Rwanda or Palestine, so that anybody can connect with the story.

Nazism is also present in the biopic “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” opening Sept. 2, which chronicles the dissolute life of the famous French-Jewish singer/songwriter/musician Serge Gainsbourg.

The character’s chutzpah is evident when, as a youngster during the German occupation, he demands to be the first to get the obligatory yellow star. The story is essentially about the descent of a brilliant talent given to excess as a smoker, drinker and lover.  Gainsbourg became a huge success for his music, which encompassed jazz, pop, reggae, funk, calypso and disco, among other genres. He had affairs with a series of beauties, including Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). His third wife was the considerably younger British actress and singer Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) with whom he recorded “Je t’aime … moi non plus,” a highly erotic duet that, in the film, prompts Gainsbourg’s music producer (Claude Chabrol) to warn that the release could land them in jail.

When Gainsbourg died of a heart attack in 1991, at the age of 62, French President Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire. He elevated the song to the level of art.”

Life in postwar Holland, as indicated by the film “Bride Flight,” was bleak, what with floods, housing shortages and very little opportunity for young people. Consequently, there were waves of emigration. The movie, which opens June 10, covers some 50 years and was inspired by the “Last Great Air Race” of 1953 that began in London and ended in Christchurch, New Zealand. The term “Bride Flight” refers to the young women on the plane who were following their fiancés to New Zealand to begin what they hoped would be a better life.

Though the characters are fictional, the events are based on the actual experiences of women who were interviewed by the script’s writer.

The film revolves around three such women and one man who all become friends on the flight; Frank (Waldemar Torenstra), whose family died in a Japanese prison camp and who is looking for a new beginning; Marjorie (Elise Schaap), who makes a happy marriage but is unable to have children; Ada (Karina Smulders), who gets married because she is pregnant, but whose marriage is marred by her attraction to another man; and Esther (Anna Drijver), a budding fashion designer who remains unmarried but gets pregnant and, as a Jewish woman, is adamant that she doesn’t want a Jewish child. “Esther had terrible experiences during Holland’s occupation by the Germans,” director Ben Sombogaart explained. “Her entire family, including her parents and little brother, were taken away from her and killed in the Nazi camps. Then she decided not to have a Jewish child because she wanted to avoid the same thing happening to him or her.”