The Twisted Art of Documentary
Ian Buruma is the winner of the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War, in which he explores the question of “what makes the human species behave atrociously.” The acclaimed author returns to World War II to explore that question—from the Nazi Occupation of Paris and the Allied bombing of German cities, to Japan’s militarist intellectuals and kamikaze pilots—arguing that art is a way in which people have historically responded to power and cruelty. The following is an essay from the book.
“The function of propaganda is… not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.” —Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
All governments make propaganda. The difference between totalitarian government propaganda and the democratic kind is that the former has a monopoly on truth; its version of reality cannot be challenged. Past, present, and future are what the rulers say they are. Which is why, from the official point of view, there is no stigma attached to the word “propaganda” in totalitarian societies. Nazi Germany had a Ministry of Volk Enlightenment and Propaganda, and the Soviet Union a Department for Agitation and Propaganda.
The idea that rulers should impose their own realities exists, at least as an aspiration, in democracies too. It was nicely summed up by a US government official (probably Karl Rove) who stated that “we [the Bush administration] create our own reality.” But democratic governments and parties are not supposed to dictate the truth. We expect partisanship from our politicians; they can try to make their case. But the word “propaganda” has a negative connotation. It smacks of coercion or official lying. And so propaganda cannot be called that, but must be disguised as “news,” or “information,” or “entertainment” (Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver). The propaganda department of the US government during World War II was called the Office of War Information, and on several occasions during the last Iraq war heroic myths were presented as news stories.
This is not an argument for moral equivalence. One can be arrested for exposing official lies in democracies, but the chances of that happening are slimmer than under dictatorships, where the fate of whistle-blowers and naysayers is often far worse than jail. Nor is it an argument against governments trying to propagate a message. This can be necessary to mobilize people behind a difficult but essential enterprise (fighting Nazi Germany, say). Perhaps the masking of propaganda is an inevitable bit of hypocrisy in a democratic society, even though slipping fictions into news stories as facts cannot be condoned under any circumstances.
Some propaganda is not only made for a good cause but can be factually true. But if so, can we still call it propaganda? And if it is for a good cause, should we still mind that it is propaganda? If it is also good art (pictures commissioned by churches or kings or the Cuban Communist Party, for example), should we care about the cause? Some of these questions, and more, are raised by two fascinating documentaries, one the reconstruction of a US government film made in 1948 to justify the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and one about a perverse and vicious Nazi propaganda film, made in 1942, that was never completed or shown. Neither the Nuremberg nor the Nazi movie could be classified as great art, even though A Film Unfinished, the documentary about the Nazi movie, is certainly an extraordinary accomplishment.
The idea for Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was born in a special film unit of the Office of Strategic Services led by John Ford, the famous director. His associates were the navy lieutenant Budd Schulberg (who went on to write On the Waterfront, among other things) and Budd’s brother Stuart, a Marine Corps sergeant. The original idea was to compile visual evidence about the Third Reich to help Justice Robert H. Jackson, the US prosecutor at Nuremberg. The material was culled from Nazi propaganda films, newsreels, private movies, and indeed anything the filmmakers could lay their hands on that hadn’t been destroyed by the Germans at the end of the war.
This actually resulted in three films. Two were shown in the courtroom, entitled The Nazi Plan and Nazi Concentration Camps. These were not released to the general public. A third film, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, produced by Pare Lorentz, who had written documentaries during the New Deal, was directed by Stuart Schulberg. Now brilliantly restored by his daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky, it was shown only to German audiences at the time. It combined material from the films shown at the trial with new footage shot of the trial proceedings by cameramen from the Army Signal Corps. The movie begins with part of Jackson’s opening statement about the trial being a way to make “peace more secure” and serve as a “warning against all those who plan to wage an aggressive war.”
Much of the film will be quite familiar to anyone who has an interest in Nazi history: the rallies, the speeches, the blitzkrieg, the ghastly scenes of corpses being dumped into the mass graves of Belsen. The most unusual footage is the only scene not screened in the courtroom at Nuremberg, of a car pumping carbon monoxide into a sealed room. This improvised gas chamber was filmed by an SS commander who used such methods to kill Jews as well as mental patients.
The reconstruction of the 1948 documentary, which had only survived with a German soundtrack, is a remarkable feat: testimonies in the trial had to be transferred from wax recordings and synchronized with images on the screen; the score was recreated by the composer John Califra from musical cues jotted down by the original composer, Hans-Otto Borgmann, who, curiously, had had a previous career writing music for such Nazi propaganda movies as Hitlerjunge Quex (1933).
Although no doubt useful as a historical document for future generations who will be less familiar with images of the Third Reich, Schulberg’s film is especially interesting for what it tells us about the time when it was made: that short period between the Nazi war crimes trials, undertaken in the hope of building a better, more just world, and the beginning of the cold war, when harder-nosed policies prevailed. Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was a propaganda film, but the exact nature of the propaganda was contested from the beginning. This contest reflected bureaucratic battles within the US government, as well as political differences about priorities in the new postwar order.
Robert A. McClure, the director of the US military government’s Information Control Division, saw the film as a tool to teach the Germans a lesson. It was to be part of the denazification programs set up by the Allied occupation governments, the cinematic counterpart, as it were, of forcing German citizens to tour the concentration camps and see what their country had done. The producer, Pare Lorentz, however, had a wider, more idealistic vision, shared by Justice Jackson and the War Department in Washington, D.C. The lesson for today had to be a lesson to us all. The trial, with its newly created laws, was meant to be a moral exercise, a beacon of justice to light the way to a better future, and the film, as Schulberg and Lorentz conceived it, was supposed to justify that goal.
In the short run, the War Department won this battle over messages. Despite various attempts by McClure and the military government in Germany to produce alternative scripts and make a different movie, one less tied to the trial itself and more to Nazi crimes in general, the Lorentz/Schulberg version eventually got made. By dividing the film into sections following the main indictments at Nuremberg—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace—the documentary makes the case for the prosecution, without considering the legal problems of victors judging the vanquished according to laws that did not exist when the crimes were committed. Scenes of Hermann Göring running rings around Jackson in his cross-examination are not shown. Nor is any attention paid to Allied war crimes, such as the terror bombing of civilian populations, or to the fact that Stalin’s Soviet judges were hardly in a position to represent impartial justice or to prosecute crimes against humanity. The main Soviet judge, Iona Nikitchenko, had presided over some of Stalin’s worst show trials during the purges in the 1930s. He told his colleagues in Nuremberg that impartiality was just a waste of time. But challenging the Nuremberg trial in any way was the precise opposite of what the film was intended to do.
Since this movie was supposed to have a universal message, it was slated to go into general release in the US and elsewhere. Even though the message of the film accorded perfectly with Jackson’s views, he was worried about the use of Nazi propaganda material. Wouldn’t it look too convincing to the uninformed viewer? “Unless,” he said, “the audience is informed as to the falsity of the claims made in the propaganda films, the films really are what they were intended to be—good propaganda for Hitler.” It is difficult to see his point from our better-informed perspective today, but Jackson made sure that the films were carefully tailored to avoid giving Americans the wrong impression.
In the end, Americans were never shown the movie at all. It was good enough for the Germans, who flocked to see it in 1948 and 1949. But as the cold war began, Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets, the Marshall Plan gathered speed, and priorities changed. A new Communist enemy had to be faced. It was not expedient to stir up further American hostility against the Germans by paying too much attention to Nazi atrocities. Enthusiasm for war crimes trials began to wane in official quarters. And so, in the medium term, the line taken by the military government, that the lessons of Nuremberg should be confined to the Germans, won the day after all.
But now, after the cold war, the original purpose of the film has come back into its own, with an added twist of history. When it was made, and the trials were still going on, the persecution and genocide of the Jews were an important part of the Nazi story but not yet the crux of it. This was before the publication of Anne Frank’s diary, before the Eichmann trial, before the Holocaust came to define evil in modern history or was even used as a common term at all. The main purpose of the film was to warn the world against waging aggressive war. Now that the Holocaust is the most familiar and in many cases just about the only thing many Americans know about World War II, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today will largely be seen as a warning against racism. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just shows how history lessons change with the times, regardless of the intentions of the people who originally conceived them.
One of the things Budd Schulberg turned up in the fall of 1948, from an archive in Soviet-occupied Babelsberg, site of the famous UFA movie studios, was a two-reel film shot by German cameramen in the Warsaw ghetto. Presumably this was from the same cache that was uncovered by East Germans less than ten years later, part of an unfinished Nazi movie made in 1942, entitled Das Ghetto. The ghetto occupied less than 3 percent of the city land. Some 450,000 Jews were squeezed into filthy tenements, often without water, heat, or sanitation. By the time the ghetto was liquidated in April 1943, 100,000 had died of hunger and disease. That the movie had been made for propaganda is clear. One of the surviving German cameramen, named Willy Wist, admitted as much during an investigation in the 1960s into the deeds of a former SS commandant of the “Jewish residential district.” He said, “Of course we knew it had a propagandistic purpose.” But he claimed not to have known what that purpose was. Since the film was never completed, we still don’t know for sure.
The discovery, in the late 1990s, of outtakes from Das Ghetto revealed that many scenes in this “documentary” were actually staged. Over and over, neatly dressed Jews are made to walk past emaciated figures dying in the streets. Crowds are shown being violently dispersed by Jewish ghetto police wielding clubs. A plump young woman posing as a waitress in a luxurious restaurant—filled with other carefully selected Jewish extras dancing and eating lavish meals—is filmed standing outside, ignoring a skeletal person begging for a scrap of food. Sleek gentlemen in fur coats are lined up next to people in rags. Men and women, casting terrified looks at the camera, are made to jump up and down naked in a ritual bath. The diaries of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Jewish Council, describe how the Nazi film crew staged scenes in his own apartment, with someone impersonating him having meetings with men dressed up as Orthodox Jews.
The footage also contains horrifying scenes that we now know were part of daily life in the ghetto: whimpering children being forced by policemen to shake out a few bits of food from their ragged clothes, emaciated corpses being piled into mass graves. We almost never see any Germans, but it is enough to glimpse the faces of people passing the camera, full of terror and loathing, to know that they are there. As soon as the filming, which took thirty days, was over, Czerniaków was ordered to draw up lists of people to be deported to the camps. Almost none of them survived, including Czerniaków himself, who knew what awaited the victims and took a cyanide pill.
The question remains why this propaganda film was made, and why it was never finished. Turning one’s own crimes into propaganda is, after all, an eccentric thing to do, even for the Nazis. Perhaps the Germans wanted to convince people that the terrible conditions in “Jewish residential areas” were the fault of the Jews themselves, of their rich and callous leaders, and of their brutal ghetto police. If even the Jews treated their own people like Untermenschen, then the Nazis had the perfect right to remove this blight from the world. Most probably it was something along those lines. But why did they feel the need to make this case? Why did they even wish to show the horrors of the ghetto in the first place?
It may have been part of the systematic humiliation of their victims, before rushing in for the kill. Such humiliation is often the prelude to mass murder: think of the Serbian rape camps in Bosnia, or the horrors visited by Hindus and Muslims upon one another in 1947, or the massacres in China, Cambodia, and Rwanda, among many other places. The desire to degrade people before killing them probably speaks against any notions of inherent “exterminationist” mentalities. Rather, it suggests that people have to overcome certain barriers before they can exterminate fellow human beings willingly. First they must destroy their victims’ dignity and reduce them to groveling wrecks, no longer quite human. The film may have been made with that purpose in mind. We know that the Germans treated the Warsaw ghetto as a type of zoo, with special tours laid on for curious visitors, who were permitted to lash out at the wretched victims with whips for their amusement. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto came from all classes and nations. Some had been German citizens. The more the victim resembles the murderer, in culture and background, the greater the need for degradation, hence, possibly, the peculiar cruelty of civil wars.
One of the great merits of Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished is that she doesn’t press any answers onto the viewer. She doesn’t pretend to know precisely what the Nazis were thinking when they commissioned or made this awful film. Her aim is not to make a particular political or moral statement, even though politics may have inspired a certain line of cinematic inquiry. Hersonski, an Israeli in her thirties, is after something else, which has to do with the nature of cinema, with being a witness, with recording reality, and how it affects filmmakers as well as the audience. In her own words:
What I’m fascinated by is how [the Germans] documented their own evil. That’s fascinating to me because there is this cliché, a truthful one, about filmmaking as an act of observing, like a peeping tom. It’s not voyeurism, but standing there and staring.
Having grown up with films and photographs of the Holocaust, she fears that we have become numb to the images of horror. She says, “I mean, we see it as far away, black and white images of history, as dry illustrations, as objective documentation—as allegedly objective documentation—like it got done by itself.” What she demonstrates with great finesse is how subjective our perceptions actually are. She shows the same footage from utterly different points of view: that of the cameraman, Wist, whose recorded testimony is read by an actor (Wist died in 1999), and that of several survivors of the ghetto who are now living in Israel. We watch the survivors watching the film, sometimes covering their eyes when the pictures (or the memories) become too painful. Their comments are mixed with readings from ghetto diaries, including Czerniaków’s.
The cameraman, an owlish-looking figure in glasses, whose own image suddenly appears in one of the outtakes of the ghetto streets, as though by accident, does not come across as a deliberate liar but as a man who lived his life in shocked denial. He was, in his own word, “shattered” by the experience, and tried to distance himself from it as much as he could afterward. Aware of the “terrible conditions” in the ghetto, he claims that he never had any inkling of the ultimate fate awaiting the Jews. They themselves had no idea, he recalls with great conviction, even though his contacts with the Jews can hardly have been intimate. When it comes to Wist’s own complicity in acts of sadism, such as the filming of naked people forced to humiliate themselves and others in the ritual bath, he hides behind technicalities, talking about the difficulty of filming in low light.
The survivors, filmed by Hersonski, mostly stare at the images in numbed silence, afraid, as one of them says, of recognizing her own mother in the crowd. One of the women can’t bear to look at the piles of corpses being dropped into a great hole in the ground, like rubbish in a garbage dump. She explains that when she lived in the ghetto, as a young girl, she grew so used to such things that it hardly affected her anymore, except once, when she tripped over a corpse and found herself with her face pressed against the face of a dead man. The memory of her mother comforting her with the extraordinary luxury of a crust of bread and a speck of jam still brings tears to her eyes. And she cries now when she watches the film. “Today,” she says, “I am human. Today I can cry again. I am so glad that I can cry and I am human.”
And what about us, the viewers who were neither victims nor complicit in the crimes? In some ways, this is the most painful question raised by Hersonski’s film, because there is an element of voyeurism in watching atrocities, whether we like it or not, and yet it is important to be reminded of man’s capacity for inhumanity and not to forget what happened in the past. I can remember a debate in the German press almost twenty years ago, when an exhibition about the Holocaust was held at a villa in Wannsee, outside Berlin, the very spot where the logistics of genocide had been planned on a cold morning in January 1942 by brandy-drinking Nazi officials. Photographs were displayed on the villa’s walls of cowering women, stripped of their clothes, lined up in front of freshly dug pits in Poland and Lithuania moments before being shot. The pictures were taken by German killers, as mementos, one last humiliation before the murder of their victims.
Should we be watching this now? Should these women be humiliated once again by our gaze? Weren’t we all being turned into peeping toms too? It was decided by the organizers of the exhibition that the importance of showing historical evidence, of making sure people didn’t forget, was greater than the dangers of prurience. Hersonski, by making her film, clearly thinks so too. But implicitly, she takes the dilemmas of witnessing horrors further. Seeing what the Nazis did is one thing, but what about watching images of atrocities taking place in our own time? Mass murder and torture can now be seen in photography exhibitions, magazines, and movies, on the Internet, and even on the evening news.
Talking about her film, Hersonski made this link with the present quite clear: “What is my ethical position when I’m sitting very comfortably in my living room and seeing whatever is happening a few kilometers from my city in the occupied territories?” Her point is not that Gaza is like the Warsaw ghetto and she does not suggest that Israeli behavior can be compared to Nazi mass murder. The question is how we respond to images of human suffering, especially if we can be held in some way responsible:
Then what do you do as a witness? It’s a terrible question—it’s a haunting, torturing question. It’s our essential question. I think that it was also a major reason why I made this film—because the Holocaust not only confronted humanity with an inconceivable horror but it also did mark the very beginning of the systematic implementation on film of that horror.
Hersonski believes that the bombardment of photographic images has numbed us. Others have thought this, and then changed their minds. It was not a problem that occurred to the makers of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. Filmed atrocities were still too fresh, too shocking. Perhaps this also explains why the Nazis refused to finish Das Ghetto. German audiences might have been so horrified by the images of Jewish suffering that the propaganda message, whatever it was, would have gotten lost. One hopes that this would have been the case. The impact of A Film Unfinished is surely sufficient proof that, even in our media-saturated age, filmed images can still move our feelings, if not necessarily create a better world.
 An aide to George W. Bush, quoted by Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
 This was written before Julian Assange or Edward Snowden became household names.
 Even though war crimes were already a recognized category, crimes against peace, including conspiracy to wage aggressive war, and crimes against humanity were not.
 These quotes are in Sandra Schulberg’s companion book with the DVD, The Celluloid Noose (2010), which contains the recollections of Budd Schulberg as well.
 A book by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (Yale University Press, 2009), reveals that the humiliation was carried even further: the petrified men and women were also forced to have sex.
 The phrase was coined by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Knopf, 1996).
 See Engelking and Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto.
 See her interview, “How Yael Hersonski Finished ‘A Film Unfinished,’” The Clyde Fitch Report, September 6, 2010.
 See Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan will be reissued by New York Review Books on September 1, 2015.