Vol. 25 No. 4 (April 2015) pp. 68-70
CAUGHT ON CAMERA: FILM IN THE COURTROOM FROM THE NUREMBERG TRIALS TO THE TRIALS OF THE KHMER ROUGE by Christian Delage. Edited and translated by Ralph Schoolcraft and Mary Byrd Kelly. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2014. 352 pp. Cloth $59.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4556-1.
Reviewed by Helen J. Knowles, Government Department, Skidmore College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the spring of 1945, when President Truman appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson to be America’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, the more contentious political objectives for the Allied pursuit of postwar justice had already been the subjects of considerable debate within policy-making circles in the Roosevelt Administration. When he traveled to London to negotiate the Charter for the International Military Tribunal (IMT), Jackson took with him more than his own conceptions of what should be included in the document. The structure of principles that he designed, as he later observed, “only recognized an evolution that already had been consummated” (Jackson 1946 p. x). The introduction of cinematic “evidence” at the IMT was precedent-setting. However, as Christian Delage convincingly demonstrates in CAUGHT ON CAMERA: FILM IN THE COURTROOM FROM THE NUREMBERG TRIALS TO THE TRIALS OF THE KHMER ROUGE, that reshaping of the criminal process was also part of an “evolution” of thought about the use of film during legal proceedings. During that “evolution” many of the components were “already…consummated,” even if that consummation generally took place in non-judicial venues.
Many members of the law and courts community will find CAUGHT ON CAMERA useful. It will be of particular interest to those who (a) seek to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to bear upon materials for their international law courses, or (b) want to enrich their law and film courses with readings that show – as the book’s subtitle indicates – how film has been used “in the courtroom.” However, this volume is likely primarily to serve as a reference work into which interested students will be able to dip for nuggets of information about one particularly interesting (and often overlooked) aspect of the legacy of the IMT.
This is because the book tries to do too many things. Delage, a French historian and filmmaker, has drawn upon an immense amount of archival material. However, that material has opened up too many avenues of potential exploration, many of which merit far more extensive treatment in their own right (treatment clearly beyond the remit of this book).
The book is divided into four parts. Focusing on the Nuremberg proceedings, Part II is both the intellectual heart and strongest component of the book. The reader is led through a series of compelling chapters which address – in a generally praising, but nevertheless critically analytical manner – the ways in which audiovisual materials were used at the IMT. Building on the observations from previous chapters, here it becomes clear that “more so than other types of evidence or exhibits, film requires in its fabrication and in its showing all variety of mediation that prevents it from [*68] presenting an absolute truth, thus leaving open to argument the conclusions and then decisions determined in court.” (p. 87) It is in the unpacking of this statement, and the demonstration that this mediation process was shaped by complex socio-political factors, that Delage makes the greatest use of his archival research.
Part II also outshines the sections that follow because it clearly builds upon Part I, which describes some of the nascent relationships that developed between filmmakers and political policymakers, especially during the Great Depression and WWII. As the title of Chapter 2 indicates, during this time the camera became “An Impartial Witness of Social Relations,” and filmmakers began to ask questions which were no less valid then as they would be at Nuremberg, questions for which oftentimes there were no easy answers. For example: “How was one, without forsaking the freedom of creation or the value of aesthetic choices, to come to terms with that which comes from observed reality; the men and women who, often in a state of great misery, graciously allowed themselves to be photographed or filmed” (p. 25)? One of the strengths of Part II is the way in which it identifies and analyzes the Nuremberg roles (primarily evidence-gathering before the tribunal) played by people who also made prominent pre-war appearances in Part I.
When asked to describe what they know about the relationship between film and the IMT proceedings, many students of WWII and/or film studies will likely mention Stanley Kramer’s masterful 1961 motion picture JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. Insofar as that movie’s memorable use of real footage of the Nazi atrocities was one of its “central moments” (p. 160), Part III will be of interest to many readers. This is because it explores some of the early post-Nuremberg ways in which filmmakers (the spotlight is thrown upon Orson Welles, Samuel Fuller, and Kramer) tried to “popularize[e]…the lessons of Nuremberg” (p. 151). Delage’s goal, here, is admirable, because he sought to compare efforts to achieve this goal using fiction after laying out the obstacles (“distrustful military authorities and…the tormented machinations of a political witch hunt” (p. 151)) that hindered the work of documentary filmmakers.
Yet, while Part III of CAUGHT ON CAMERA has its own independent redeeming features, it also marks the point at which the book’s organizational framework starts to break down as Delage begins to move further – conceptually and chronologically – away from Nuremberg.
This becomes particularly evident in Part IV: The Era of Justice on Film (1945 to the Present). This section begins by discussing the filming of court proceedings (as opposed to the evidentiary use of audiovisual materials). For example, Delage discusses the televising of the war crimes trials, in 1961 and 1985 respectively, of Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie (he also mentions the 1994 trial of Paul Touvier; but, unfortunately he does not provide the reader with information about what the trial was about, or who the defendant was (Touvier was an aide to Barbie)). The fifth chapter of Part IV – newly written for the revised and translated 2014 edition reviewed here – serves as the book’s de facto conclusion. In that respect, it is a successful distillation of many of the main themes that Delage sought to address, and it provides useful points of comparative analysis of the courtroom use of film during the twentieth century (analysis that is far more substantive than [*69] that contained within the actual (four-page) “conclusion”). Unfortunately, Delage’s concluding thoughts also serve to remind the reader that the analytical fabric of this book is unevenly woven with strands of ideas and concepts that all too often are left unfinished.
Reflecting upon the IMT, in December 1946 Justice Jackson concluded that “[t]he precedent we have set is not that fallen enemies may be killed – that is old – the precedent is that they shall not be killed without proof of crime and fair hearings” (Jackson 1946a p. 15). Participants and external observers alike undoubtedly always will be divided about whether post-Nuremberg war crimes tribunals are fair and/or just. After all, in so many ways Sherlock Holmes was right when he observed that “the law is what we live with. Justice is sometimes harder to achieve” (1994). What is clear is that since Nuremberg the legal norms and procedures with which the international society has lived have, in important ways, been shaped by the use of audiovisual “evidence.”
In conclusion, this useful volume shows it “was logical that in continuity with the screenings organized in the courtroom, the lessons of Nuremberg should take a cinematographic form” (p. 3). For, when confronted with a need and desire “‘to establish incredible events,’” seeing is sometimes the only way of believing, of believing that the evidence is “‘credible’” (Robert H. Jackson, quoted on p. 2).
Jackson, Robert H. 1946. “Foreword,” in Sheldon Glueck, THE NUREMBERG TRIAL AND AGGRESSIVE WAR. New York: Knopf.
Robert H. Jackson. 1946a. “The Significance of the Nuremberg Trials to the Armed Forces: Previously Unpublished Personal Observations by the Chief Counsel for the United States.” MILITARY AFFAIRS 10: 2-15 (1946).
1961. “Judgment at Nuremberg” (dir. Stanley Kramer).
1994. “The Red Circle” (Granada Television adaptation, first aired March 28).
Copyright 2015 by the author, Helen J. Knowles.