September 19, 2019

Film focuses on how war warps human behavior

“I go on the assumption that everyone is guilty.”

This sentiment of a guilt that is assumed automatically through membership in the human race is expressed by Jewish master violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the beginning of “The Memory of Justice,” and it’s an assessment that is largely borne out over the course of the 4 1/2-hour HBO documentary that airs April 24.

Although publicists for the film make a point that the screening date was set intentionally for Holocaust Remembrance Day, the production deals with three examples of man’s inhumanity during the 20th century.

The first and longest segment does focus on the Holocaust, but the second part covers France’s attempted suppression of the Algerian bid for independence, and the third on America’s role in the Vietnam War.

“The Memory of Justice” is a massive — and masterful — restoration of a film of the same title released in 1976 that was produced, written and directed by Marcel Ophuls. He and his father, Max Ophuls (nee Oppenheimer), were German-born Jews, who resumed their brilliant film careers after fleeing to France and then the United States.

The main part of the film’s Holocaust-themed segment deals with the postwar Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in 1945 and in which an international tribunal tried 22 top political and military leaders of the Nazi regime. (Hitler had cheated the gallows by shooting himself as Soviet forces closed in on his Berlin bunker.)

Interviews with 40 people, perpetrators and victims, form the backbone of this segment. The two main figures are Telford Taylor, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and Albert Speer, an architect who served as Hitler’s minister of armaments.

Taylor went on to cover the Vietnam War (1955-75) and his views on war crimes, as well as similarities between Nazi and American conduct during the war in Southeast Asia, were expressed clearly in the title of his 1970 book, “Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy.” A considerable part of the film is based on Taylor’s book.

After a 20-minute intermission, both in the press screening and the TV presentation, Ophul’s documentary moves on to the Algerian war (1954-62), in which France tried to squelch its colony’s independence movement, and in which both sides systematically tortured their enemies. In French history, the conflict is known as “the dirty war.”

The final segment focuses on the Vietnam War. The centerpiece is the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers killed, mutilated and raped up to 500 unresisting men, women and children.

“The Memory of Justice” has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, which it is, but the mass of material can at times overload the attentive viewer, who also may have difficulties in quickly adjusting to the film’s shifts in tone from gruesome depictions of death camp atrocities to merry songs of the era.

Ophuls, now 89, did not take an active part in the film’s restoration. Instead, the living link between the 1976 original and the current version is Hamilton Fish, a personality worth his own biographical film.

He is the descendant of an old American family of Anglo-Saxon and Scottish extraction. Formally named Hamilton Fish V, during a phone interview he invited a reporter to address him as “Ham.”

The Fish dynasty produced a series of rock-ribbed Republican politicians, including a former governor of New York. Another member of the clan, Hamilton Fish III, was a congressman from New York’s Hudson Valley for 25 years and the nemesis of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Ham,” 64, however, has flipped in the opposite direction, and as publisher of The Nation, is credited with preserving and upgrading America’s premier liberal magazine.

In 1975, he partnered with Ophuls to produce the original version of “Memory of Justice” and, in 2011, embarked on the “excruciatingly difficult” six-year project to restore and revive the documentary.

Some of the challenges called for scanning 50 reels of the 16 mm original negatives, frame by frame, eliminating dirt and scratches, restoring the soundtrack and adding new subtitles in English, French and German.

“What I take away from the film are the continuing questions of justice and accountability, of a system of international law to counter rogue behavior by government leaders,” Fish said.

However, looking at the present state of the world in general, and in Washington, D.C., in particular, Fish sounded a pessimistic note: “We see a renewed emphasis on military power at the expense of meeting human needs at home.”

“The Memory of Justice” will air at 5 p.m. April 24 on HBO2, HBO Now, HBO Go and HBO on Demand.