Translated by Hilary Radner and Alistair Fox
A version of this article in French initially appeared in Trafic 35 [Autumn 2000].
There is nothing more irritating than the duty of memory, which a certain tired political correctness dins in our ears – above all when one ages and the brain becomes saturated with memories and makes knots that time hardens and tightens at the most painful points of the mass of memory. Thus one would like to forget the memory of the more than perfect crime committed against humanity by Hitler’s power. So much constantly rehearsed horror drives our own conscience into a condition of horror, which is never good for it. This produces either academic compassions, or contritions and guilt – neurotic for the individual subject, and institutional for states (including that of the Pope). It also produces forms of revenge as destructive as the horror that justifies them, or worst of all, the return through habituation to an ordinary fascism that is capable of the least because it has been capable of the most – because, since the Holocaust – it has become more atrocious, and therefore, rightly so, the benchmark of horror. The subjectivity of each European is more or less enmeshed in this (even if many bastards, ignorant or idiotic, attempt to evade the weight), and sometimes one would like to cry out: “Get out of my memory, filthy SS.”
But for this filthiness to let go of its hold on our conscience is not easy. Because this recurrent burden of the inhumanity in man is less a question of the memory it pursues through its imposed obligation (being not as moral as that) than one of the understanding it is unable to shake off in the process of elucidation. The filth of the SS is not alone: what about the Wehrmacht? And the Germans, the Austrians, the Polish? And the French under Pétain? – and all those who helped them so well? Through the horror of his crime, the Nazi touched in us something definitively fragile in the human race to which he belongs as do we.
This is why each well-researched history book, each well-delivered testimony, each well-shot photograph and each well-made film on the topic of this horror (that one calls it Holocaust or Shoah or the extermination of the Jewish people or the persecution of the Slavs changes nothing in terms of its enormity) tells us under different titles the same thing: men and women who could have been our parents or grandparents have done this to men, women and children whom we might have been, or who might have been our parents, etc.
And it little matters how they tell us, through the image of that which cannot be shown, the statement of that which cannot be said, through documentaries, fiction or even melodrama (one of the best ways of developing the empathetic comprehension of the suffering of the other), and why not, in truth, comedy provided that they know how to say it, because this filth, this lack of meaning, this logical scandal, one must always return to it, go back to work, and less out of duty to our poor over-burdened memory (that cannot but be forced into this most sinister of retrospections) than out of the duty to examine the possible responses to so much inhumanity in man.
None Shall Escape (1944) constitutes one of these responses – a film produced in 1943 by Columbia and which Harry Cohn, disturbed psychiatric case that he was, had the intuition and the courage to give to André de Toth to direct. De Toth was a filmmaker who had recently immigrated from Hungary, whom at one time certain people in Hollywood suspected of being a Nazi spy because apart from having made five feature-length films in Hungary in 1939, he was believed to have made – on the order of the invading army – a documentary of the invasion of Poland. His film has the enormous merit, by means of a screenplay of rare intelligence aided by a mise-en-scene of a rare brio and of a striking lyrical emportement, of clearly and frontally clarifying a point of view: that the human being, under certain historical conditions and equipped individually with a certain nature that inclines him or her that way, can, easily, become totally inhuman and can commit crimes ‘against humanity’ that fall to the rest of humanity to judge in order to defend itself, and to punish by eliminating this undesirable individual from its community.
This screenplay (on which it is certain that De Toth collaborated closely and which he enhanced and enriched with his personal experience) imagines thus that a Nazi criminal of German nationality is tried for his crimes committed in Poland where he lived before the war and where he returned during the Occupation in 1939, attacking the village where once he was treated with deference and generosity. He is tried by an international court overseen by the ‘United Nations.’
We must recall here two other major films that were made in 1942 and 1943 in Hollywood, also directed by filmmakers who had immigrated from Europe, Hitler’s Madman (1943) by Douglas Sirk, and Hangmen Also Die (1943) by Fritz Lang, in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on the screenplay. As good pragmatists, the Hollywood studios knew how to use the cinematographic know-how and the lived experience of these immigrants to better distill in the mind of the American public a hatred for German Nazism, while it was really about justifying the participation of the United States on the European front of the war, the necessity of which was not as evident to public opinion as was that of the battle against Japan after the humiliation of Pearl Harbour, all the more because the bitter memory of soldiers killed in France and in Belgium during the first war (for reasons that were not ‘America’s business’) had not been forgotten and because the anti-Roosevelt lobby, xenophobic and anti-Semitic, was strong enough in the United States to dampen the ardour of those in favour of a massive military intervention against Hitler’s fascism.
None Shall Escape‘s screenplay is notably original and daring because it invents an institution called the ‘United Nations’ whereas in 1943 there was only a Society of Nations on its deathbed, that had not yet ceased to prove its inefficacy in preventing world conflict and in containing the insanity and the crimes of Hitler (which were beginning to be known at least by the Allied governments), and to which the UN as an international institution did not succeed until 1945. In addition, and above all, the film anticipates by two years the inauguration of the Nuremberg Trials (in November, 1945), which is difficult to imagine before the discovery of the extermination camps by the Allied forces in the course of the spring of 1945.
The film is, thus, if one likes, prophetic and if it goes in the direction of history, as one says, it is less a matter of being quick to take up this direction than of definitely preceding it.
Nonetheless, looking more closely at this remarkable film, of above all, I insist, intelligence – as much for the strong documentary acuteness of its historical perception (the abuses committed in this Polish village are both at the same time an analysis and a synthesis of everything that we will learn later and long afterwards about the horrors that were in fact perpetuated by the SS in Occupied Slavic Territories – without the precision of their description ever being contradicted by documents confirmed much later nor by the impression of the logic and the reality of their ascent into the horror actually inflicted) as for the subtlety of the acting, particularly that of Alexander Knox – we note in fact that the film anticipates less the Nuremberg Trials than that which neither Nuremberg nor the later trials of Eichmann and of others, instruments and accomplices in the Nazi system of persecution and extermination, will ever manage to do: the trial of each of the guilty as personally responsible for their crimes.
In truth, after 1945, after the discovery and liberation of the camps by the Allied forces (Auschwitz by the Russians, Bergen Belsen by the English, Dachau, Buchenwald and numerous others by the Americans, an edited sequence of shots by film crews of some and others shown as evidence for the prosecution at Nuremberg) neither André de Toth nor anyone else would have been able to make a fiction film like None Shall Escape. This because the horror, the scale, the quantitative enormity and ‘serial’ nature of the crimes had exceeded any individual legal responsibility. Even in imagination, no longer would any individual guilty subject be in a position to respond truly in terms of personal culpability before such an indictment of humanity itself, of the human race, transformed into victim or executioner in this horror.
The accused at Nuremberg, as well as Eichmann or Barbie later, always used this ‘disproportion’ as part of their repulsive system, their implicit or explicit defence: ‘This crime is too large for me and I would not know how to assume it – how could I, a man, have been responsible for such an enormous crime, so widely reproduced, thus so diluted in terms of identifying its origin, of which millions of people were the victims and thereby lost their particular identities also in the night and the fog and thus so to speak lost their right to each receive justice in the terms of an eye of a murderer for the eye of a victim?’
After 1945, neither the murderers nor the victims had faces. It has taken time (the rest of the century was not enough) to begin to understand that we might give them one. Crimes against humanity have this in common: that they cloud, they erase human identity. And over long years, several decades, and in spite of the trials, verdicts that were more or less harsh, the hangings, the suicides, life taken from one single condemned individual or from hundreds, justice appeared indeed feeble, not only in response to the millions of crimes, but in terms of equity in front of this incommensurable offence.
Before it had become forever impossible to attribute the crime to a single man in terms of his actual share of guilt for what had taken place, De Toth’s film generates a hypothesis of unprecedented audacity and psycho-logical scope (by ‘psycho-logical’, I mean rationality applied to the study of the psyche): that it would be possible nonetheless to do this by probing the heart and the personal (and even subjective) stories of any Nazi that committed or ordered committed criminal acts.
It is thus less Nuremberg or any other trial of one more individuals guilty of crimes against humanity that the film anticipates, but something else, a more recent knowledge, more modern (we sometimes call ‘modernity’ the era after the camps, this irritates me a bit, but here it would be right to do so), much more contemporary in any case in terms of our present, about the inhumanity, virtual and always possible, of each human being, if certain ‘favourable’ geo-historical conditions are linked to a neuro-pathological weak point in the individual psychic structure of the person in question, predisposing him and offering him the possibility of acting out the inhuman horrors of which one must always fear that he is capable.
The modernity, then, the boldness, the particular stroke of genius of this film, is to have thus grasped the banality of evil there where it actually resides: inside the psychic circumstances of the subject at a given meeting point between his or her history and the general history of his or her period.
The filthy SS does not loosen its sinister grasp on our memory nor does it fail to force us to experience yet again these points of pain and self-doubt, because this poor and dirty guy resembles the worst of our most pathetic death drives appallingly inflicted on others in order to redeem those from which we suffer ourselves.
Already in Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s film, we learnt through the infamous filming by a hidden camera of an interview with one of the surviving individuals responsible for Auschwitz, that it was not amusing to do “this dirty job,” and as incredible as is implausible this truth, certain Nazis suffered, and were even depressed, because of having to do it. Here we may understand, and the extraordinary actor/protagonist subtly reveals this, something else, a truth of another order, but that derives also from the profound issue of the banality of evil: this Nazi bastard, a nasty guy, truly rotten to ‘the roots of his heart’ (as our Portuguese friend, Paulo Rocha, would say) who must be considered fully responsible for all the nastiness that he has done, points to a humanity the logic of which does not defy understanding, a logic which can be submitted to an analysis of its concatenations of cause and effect leading to evil.
It is for this precise point that one must recognise the exceptional intelligence of De Toth’s film. ‘His’ Nazi offers a plausible and horrifying example of human evil.
It is the work of creating a character (I insist on this and resist with all my strength Jean-Luc Godard who maintains that at the movies there cannot be characters) that makes this face, so animated by a logic that is at the same time intimate and general, credible and convincing. This is the most remarkable success of the film. It is the ensemble of his constructing beams and frames, in concert with a talent without peer in a professional actor, that supports the doubly historic consistency of the face, inscribing his personal history in a very localised time and space of the world, and even permits the film to sketch out a veritable thesis about the historical interpretation of the Nazi phenomenon, a thesis that is, by the way, widely accepted today.
In truth, the ‘Carabiniers’ (the sublime Michel Angel and Ulysse) are not characters, because their two faces are located in a sort of poetic upstream from fascism, which they do not incarnate. If the word existed, we might even say that they ‘ex-carnate’ it. And it is not an accident that we would not be able to say whether they are good or bad, because there is in them something like a tone-deafness to moral music. But that man there, who is a true objective bastard, who really has perversion chained to his heart, that character results from condensing, at the same time, the uniqueness and the universality of the Nazi, as if in a chemical concretion, an indivisible nucleus of the Nazi being.
He is essentially a proud man full of bitterness that has become nasty. He is Germany alone after the defeat of 1918, Germany on the downward slope of its own evil infinity both of suffering and energy, who will believe in Hitler, will venerate him frenetically, less out of love for a leader than as the only solution that will compensate for the wound of defeat, a Germany that is too sick to not become evil.
And what this film constructs (through a stunning simultaneous succession and combination of three flashbacks triggered in the course of the trial by the testimony of three people close to the accused) is the consistency of a character who is entirely evil from all constitutive perspectives of his character at the same time, who, carried along by circumstances, since the war of 1914-1918, from the birth of the Nazi party to the persecution of Occupied Poland, will behave like an vile dog in a period that is favourable to the most vile of actions. This highly unique character whose personal history occurs only by accident through successive goings and comings between Poland and Germany acquires little by little the fate of becoming the example of Nazi barbarism against the invaded peoples of Central Europe.
What the jury of this imaginary court of United Nations judges is at one and the same time the ontologically criminal nature of the accused – his fundamental nastiness as a perverted dangerous individual (whose personal responsibility is not at all attenuated by diminished intelligence or by his subordinate position within a hierarchy, since he clearly appears to have himself voluntarily acquired a position in this hierarchy) – and, in the course of this exemplary trial, a system that had rendered possible a generalisation of the historical opportunity afforded individuals of this nature to BE united in a party, and even in an army under the influence of the said party, so that the crime of a single human/inhuman becomes a collective crime against humanity, of an inhuman humanity.
At a point in this exceptional fictive construction of inductive documentary effectiveness (because one of those Nazi could be such a dirty bastard, one must conclude that the entire history of Nazi barbarism is explained by multiplication, arithmetical or viral, of these individual bastards), we might encounter a stumbling block, leaving us a little skeptical. Because by imagining that not a single one of these responsible Nazis thus escapes, personally, the punishment of his or her individual nastiness, the film not only constructs an ideal mode of denial that real history will inflict upon itself (so many responsible Nazis did escape their punishment, either because they could prove in front of the court – where they were not too numerous to appear – that they had no personal responsibility or because they escaped all judgment through dissimulation or flight) but also because the film is obliged to construct the delicate paradox of a perfect Manicheism between the moment of the courts, including the witnesses, and the accused at the dock, supposed to be that of others accused of the same type of crimes in the future, equally well probed in their kidneys and in their heart. The United Nations who judges here and the witnesses called, in this film, must be as WHITE as the accused is black.
The testimony of the Polish Catholic priest for example, whom we note is played by the same actor who plays the Angel in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) so kind, so courageous, so the idyllic friend of the village rabbi, a bit of a joke of a priest when one knows the heavy responsibility of the Catholic authorities and people because of a certain tolerance of the installation and the functioning of the extermination camps on their own soil.
Nonetheless, with those sorts of reservations about the venial idealism of the film…after all it’s Hollywood…after all it is not against Poland that we are fighting in 1943…after all if one must set a desirable norm for the punishment of criminals, the courts and the witnesses must be beyond reproach…this is not very serious next to the mortal sin the nature of which, human and inhumane, the film examines with an extraordinary and powerful profundity.