- From Nuremberg to Hollywood: The Holocaust and the Courtroom in American Fictive Film by James Jordan
Hollywood traditionally loves courtroom dramas, and it is easy to see why. A trial is inherently dramatic, pitting two sides against one another as each seeks to support its own version of the truth. Studying courtroom dramas through time offers the historian a fertile field for detecting how understandings of particular historical events evolve, for in the distinct ways the trials are presented on screen, with filmmakers choosing certain kinds of evidence while excluding others, we can see how one generation’s view of the event may be distinct from another’s. It is James Jordan’s considerable achievement to recognize the promise of this method and to use it to demonstrate the differing ways in which American films since 1944 have deployed the courtroom device to examine the Holocaust, reflecting shifting ways of understanding the Nazis’ crimes as the Second World War receded ever further into the historical background.
Consider, for example, 1944’s None Shall Escape, the only Hollywood film made during the war that depicted the organized killing of Jews. Centered upon an imagined postwar international war crimes tribunal, None Shall Escape allows witnesses to give their courtroom testimony in the form of flashbacks. This is significant, for as Jordan points out, as soon as the scenes shift from the witness standing in court to the flashback that makes up the body of his or her testimony, the viewer is made to be in the presence of “what really happened.” The subjective—witness statements in court—thus becomes objective—the self-evidently true viewpoint offered to the viewer by the flashback. But the year, after all, was 1944. Very soon, actual footage, either seized from the Germans or filmed by the allies in newly liberated camps, and then made widely known through the Nuremberg Trials, would emerge as the primary mode of evidence used to establish Nazi war crimes in Hollywood films.
But this privileging of archival material in courtroom dramas came at a price, for it tended to supplant the importance of the Jewish witness in relating his or her experiences; or as Jordan puts it, “the newsreels… were now assisting in the suppression of dialogue, effectively supplanting the survivor in public discourse, the voice of the victim replaced by the view of the liberator…” (60). Thus, in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it is primarily documentary footage that shows the guilt of the German people, not the testimonial voices of survivors, an evidentiary choice that may in part be due to the preference of American [End Page 410] audiences for celebrating the liberation of the camps rather than exploring the suffering of the victims.
For Jordan, this began to change with the Eichmann Trial, in which Israeli prosecutors relied primarily on the testimony of survivors to support the reliability of archival evidence. The voice of the victim correspondingly took on a new importance in the films of the 1960s and 1970s, so that in QB VII (1974), for example, it is a succession of survivors whose courtroom testimony establishes the crimes of a man accused of having conducted medical experiments on Jewish concentration camp inmates. Jordan perceptively suggests that by placing the memory of living victims at the core of Holocaust dramas, filmmakers could drive home the point that Nazi war crimes were not wholly in the past, and, indeed, that without remembrance, they could happen again.
This cinematic privileging of survivor testimony dovetailed with renewed American interest in the Holocaust in general and a corresponding determination to find and prosecute remaining Nazi war criminals. But perhaps inevitably, as Hollywood produced fictive accounts of those contemporary prosecutions, filmmakers echoed the tactics of actual defendants like John Demjanjuk in raising the problem of the fallibility of memory. Jordan is particularly astute in this discussion of Costa-Gavras’s Music Box (1989), in which both memory and documentary evidence come under withering attack when presented in the courtroom, even though...