8 out of 10


Those who were "Just following orders"

Like the Titanic's sinking, the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal is one of those events that bound to open a whole can of worms. There's not a bar in the world where there isn't a keen jury of bar philosophers keen to offer their own deeply opinionated judgement. With America, France, Britain and Russia pooling their prisoners, the leaders of the Third Reich were put on trial for crimes against civilization, placing on record what happened and setting unique legal precedent. Basing it closely on official records, Quebec director Yves Simoneau's film is a gripping account for all those even remotely interested in history, but, the question arises from the start, whether the trial could have covered such a substantial subject in nearly a year of testimony, let alone if David W. Rintels' screenplay can justly cover it in little over two hours.

When a movie has the image-obsessed Alec Baldwin as an executive producer, it is certain that he will be one of the central stars of this Canadian picture and here he plays Robert Jackson, the US prosecutor who masterminded the trial. Selecting those to be tried, arranging for co-operation between the various victorious powers and even organising the rebuilding of the courthouse at Nuremburg. Still bearing the ten commandments on the wall, it was the place he selected, not least as it had been the Nazis' spiritual capital where the Nuremburg Laws had been passed, stripping minorities of their rights.. For Jackson, it seemed the most give-away open and shut case in his history, yet this was not to be.

From the outset, Jackson states that you can't put the whole country on trial, stating,"We have no purpose here to incriminate the whole of the German people". Ironically after the First World War, the Allies crushed the ordinary Germans under brutal war reparations for the actions of its unelected monarch, yet the German Weimar was a democratic republic whose design had been foisted upon them by the Americans. And with the Nazis winning 37% of the popular poll, it wasn't a tiny handful of Germans who had put their mark on the ballot paper for Adolf to see him waving from the steps of the Chancellory despite the fact he had made his drastic military and social intents so clear beforehand in his book "Mein Kampf".

With Art Directors, Jean Babin, Réal Proulx and Marc Ricard faithfully recreating the courtroom of 1945-6, it is a trial that will hear the most gruesome of testimony by inmates about the extermination of the Jews that is overwhelming, both in quantity and psychologically. It includes that of Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a member of the French Resistance, detailing the screams of children being thrown into the furnaces of Auschwitz alive after they ran out of gas. Additionally, "Nuremburg" features Rudoff Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz who was himself later charged with war crimes, played by Colm Feore, the psychopathic henchman in almost 80 films, at his creepy best.

Despite this, "Nuremburg" is not only about the testimony, but also about relationships and personal conflicts. For instance, at the US Stockade at Bad Mondorf in Germany, Major Aldrus (Michael Ironside, a Canadian with over 159 film credits to his name) has nothing but contempt for these "Nazi bastards" he has as inmates, yet must keep them alive as well as dealing with all the other pressures, including persistent press photographer (Norm Berketa). After a suicide, to prevent the others accused of war crimes from following suit, he brings in a prison psychologist, Captain Gilbert (Ontarian Matt Craven, better known as Capra in "Assault on Precinct 13"). A Jew, he is fascinated by trying to understand how these men could have done such terrible things and is fascinated by trying use this unique opportunity in history to identify the nature of evil. His exchanges with the inmates are extraordinarily interesting and great use of his real life notes was made in the production of this film.

By Summer of 1945, Hitler, Himmler, head of the SS and architect of the holocaust and Goebbels lay dead with Martin Boorman on the run, leaving Jackson facing an eclectic bunch of second-rate misfits. For instance, there's Christopher Heyerdahl, a Canadian famed for playing the hard henchman in productios such as "Stargate", "Catwoman" and "Blade Trinity" as the Nazi Ernst Kaltenbrunner, everyone's idea of what a brutal SS officier should be like.

Amongst them two particular defendents stand out. Firstly, there is Albert Speer, played by renown German actor Herbert Knaup (the father from "Run, Lola, Run"). A quiet, but clever man and an architect by trade, he had been someone Hitler had respected as an intellectual and had served as his Minister of Industry. With the press speculating in May 1945 that Speer might lead the future Government of Germany, he had more than just his own life to save and reason to see the other top Nazis crash. His approach seemed to be one of accepting responsibility and remorse, yet he was later to spend most of the rest of his life after the trial trying to convince everyone how he had had nothing to to with the worst excesses of the Third Reich.

The second is Reichsmarschall Goering, a swaggering and bombastic figure whose Luftwaffe levelled much of England's finest towns and cities. Studying his every habit and tick, Brian Cox steals the show, playing him to utter magnificence. Brimming with infectious charm, he even befriends his own guard, a Lieutenant Wheelis (Scott Gibson), known as "Tex". Unlike the others, Goering is resigned to death in the hands of the allies simply for losing the war. A highly decorated pilot in the First World War, he is certainly no coward and states:-

"Fear? What do I have to be afraid of? I've ordered hundreds and thousands of men into battle, knowing full well that not many would return. Why should I, their leader, tremble when called upon to face the enemy? I know that I am a condemned man."

Whilst Jackson maintains that he wishes a trial of superior morality instead of superior might, Goering holds the opposite opinion that "Justice has absolutely nothing to do with this trial.".Openly admits to having committed crimes, Goering argues to American embarrassment that many of his actions are no different in concept than those committed by the Allies, only in scale. Why is that the Americans only imprisoned those of Japanese descent and not those of German or Italian descent? Is this not discrimination? And is that not the same as his own "protective custody" of dissidents? Are not blacks in America segregated? Are they not forbidden to sit on the same buses? And even in the regards of mass murder, Goering asks, "What was Hiroshima?"

Goering never denies hating Jews and shows no compassion nor regret for stripping them of their property, rights or even status as human beings and his comments alone would undoubtedly have landed him jail today. Indeed, he almost revels in it, yet he is always insistent that he was not involved in the mass murders of the Jews and the minority groups, insisting "These things were kept secret to me" by Himmler, but that he had known of, but had opposed the invasion of Russia. As he sits watching the shocking American footage of the death camps, his initiail reaction is one of total denial. One of the biggest collisions at the trial is over Jackson's mistranslation of a document signed by "Final Solution" when he insists it actually reads "desired solution" and believed it was concerning emigration, a policy that Goebbels repeatedly stated publically was proceeding, backed by cinema footage of women put to work beavering away at lines and lines of sewing machines.

"I was only following orders" was a common response amongst the others that has become almost legendary slang in England, but in pushing ahead with a conventional trial, taking on the burden of proof, how did this stand against Jackson? To prove a crime, one must establish not only ACTA RES, the concept that the person did the crime, but also MENS REI, the concept that the person had thought process in their action either through negligence, knew about it or would have been able to choose not to perform it. As the basis of law is that it is required to keep to the law, if one obeys the law, then there is no mens rei regarding actions springing from adhereing to it and to "follow orders" is, de facto, an acceptable defence. What options there were to oppose him? And is Goering's testimony that he invented the concentration camps an admission to guilt of the Final Solution? Much of the question of who was responsible and the legitimacy of "Only following orders" is therefore related to how the Nazis came to power, an entire aspect little covered by the film.

Following the Wall Street Crash, Governments and citizens alike consoled themselves in conspiracy theories and taking to finding scapegoats for the hideous depth of the depression that had been let loose. In Britain and France, this manifested itself in hammering the weak German Weimar Republic. With the collapse of Austrian Credit-Anstadt Bank on May 11th 1931 and the ensuring massive collapse of most of Weimar's banking system, Germans found themselves penniless and with not even savings to fall back on. By Christmas 1932, the entire country was divided between the Nazis blaming the Communists, freemasons and Jews and the Communists blaming the wealthy. Civil war seemed imminent. Both sides were armed with the League of Spartacus on the left and, on the right, the Nazi SA or "Brownshirts", a private army of over 400,000 social dropouts (drunks, psychologically ruined veterans from the First World War and gays) ready and trained to fight. Indeed, any civil war would have made Ernst Roehm, the leader of the SA, the most important person in any aftermath Nazi Government they would form. Restricted by the Treaty of Versailles to an army of just 100,000 unreliable men, the dwindling democrats seemed in a hopeless position and had already been reduced to running the country through absolute decree of the aging President Hindenburg. Despite having continuously condemned Hitler, Von Papen (Dennis St John), a democrat and head of a more moderate conservative party, pursuaded Hindenburg to plump for the lesser of two evils and appoint Hitler Chancellor of the starving nation and himself as Vice-Chancellor.

Upon appointment, Hitler quickly began to consolidate power. 28 days later, the German parliament, the Reichstag, is burnt down.Claiming this to be a signal for the Communist uprising everyone was expecting, Hitler managed to pass Enabling Bill One, a direct parallel, almost word-for-word, of Tony Blair's current anti-terrorism law. Backing this, Goering establishes camps in the woods where 3,000 or so of those who have proclaimed an intent to overthrow the state are sent in "protected custody". Unlike Guantanamo Bay, these are run openly by respected police officers with the world's press invited as observers. The Communists are banned and by 30th June 1934, the number who have not signed the equivalent of a peace bond to leave had diminished to barely 2,000.

With the threat of Communists now gone, in Spring 1934, the democrats now moved against the Nazi threat. Several leading conservatives spoke out against the Nazis including many in Hitler's own coalition cabinet such as Von Papen himself at Marberg on 17th June 1934. With no enemy to fight, the Nazi SA was increasingly utterly redundant and their continued presence posed both a direct threat of a coup d'etat to Hitler as well as such an embarrassment that Hitler faced almost certainty of being sacked. On 30th June 1934, Himmler's fledgling SS struck, liquidating almost all the top SA leaders. In the same night of butchery, top conservatives were also murdered including Kurt von Schleicher (ex-Conservative Chancellor) with his wife Elizabeth, Dr Erich Klausener (Head of The Centre Party) and right-wing newspaper editor Fritz Gerlich, whilst attempts were also made on the life of Gottfried Trevanius (Head of The People's Conservative Party) who fled the country. Through his collusion, Goering, (Hitler's old drinking buddy), is neither shot nor arrested despite being an SA himself.. Instead, he is moved to the Ministry of Forestry and the detention camps he has founded are taken away from him and given to Himmler. Immediately throwing out the police and the press, Himmler's SS turn them into the style of concentration camps that history remembers and promptly start shipping in dissidents. Immediately begin the executions that will one day claim a total of over 10.000.000 victims. Meanwhile, most of Von Papen's staff are sent to their doom in these concentration camps, his secretary, Herbert von Bose is shot at his desk, his speechwriter, Edgar Jung is taken away to be shot and Von Papen himself is held under house arrest for three days to escape execution only through the direct intervention of Goering. Accepting his survival, Von Papen immediately resigns. With respect for the aging diplomat, in 1939, Goering arranges for Von Papen to be sent to neutral Turkey as Germany's ambassador.

When set against this, Goering's statement, "Take a look in every cell. All you'll find is yes-men. The no-men are 6 feet underground." certainly has more than just a ring of truth to it, as opposed to Albert Speer's claim that people only followed the Nazis because of "Habit, instinct, something in the German character that responds to authority real or imagined." Ironically, his further statement that "Nazi Germany was built on empty platitudes" seems more like the platitudes that he, a Nazi, is feeding the Americans - the exact words they want to hear.

Another figure who falls foul of Speer is the tragic fall-guy figure of Fritz Sauckel (Ken Kramer). As Industry Minister, Speer ordered him to supply millions of forced labour workers to his factories, where they worked in heinous conditions until they died, yet Sauckel is hung whilst Speer gets off with a 20-year prison sentence. This was particularly ironic as the prosecution even presented a photograph of Speer visiting the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he is clearly shown surrounded by emaciated prisoners whilst the main evidence evidence against Goering regarding the final solution that was given at the Trail, but is not in the film, is a claim that while in the prison yard at Nuremberg, Göring is supposed to have responded to hearing a comment about the Hungarian Jews, "So, there are still some there? I thought we had knocked off all of them. Somebody slipped up again." Again this was an unsubstantiated claim by Albert Speer, unsupported by any other witnesses, just as his claims to have planned to assassinate Hitler has none.

Were the allies hypocritical as Goering suggests? Quite apart from the fact that the Nazi leaders are being tried for slave labour in a building rebuilt with the forced labour of German prisoners of war, Sir David Maxweel-Fyfe (Christopher Plummer), for instance, asks Von Ribbontrop (Benoît Girard) about the events of March 1939, "Would you not agree that as Foreign Minister you forced Czechoslavakia to surrender its territory by the most intolerable threats of aggression?", when British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain had done precisely the same in 1938, believing it would secure peace between Britain and Germany.

Sadly, the film little mentions the case regarding Grossadmiral Donitz (Quebec actor Raymond Cloutier), despite this being possibly the most controversial. How can it be regarded as anything other than hypocritical for German Admiral Donitz to have been given a jail sentence of over 11 years for unrestricted submarine warfare when both the Allies and the Axis powers had engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare? 1945 had already seen the worst shipping disaster of all time with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. A civilian ship carrying approximately 10,000 refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army in Prussia, she was sunk by torpedoes labelled "For Stalin" by the Soviet submarine S-13 with the recent estimate of 9,400 dead on 30th January. 10 days later, the S-13 followed this up with the sinking of German hospital ship carrying 4,500 wounded soldiers and refugees in almost the same locality with further 3,800 dead. Again, in the same area, on 16th April 1945, days before the end of the war, the Soviet submarine L-3 sank the German cruise liner, Goya, laden with 7,000 or so refugees with all but 165 dying making it the second worst shipping accident of all time. Even the American Admiral Nimitz sent a sworn testimony to the tribunal that Donitz, who never joined the Nazi Party, had done nothing he had not himself. Furthermore, after taking over the Presidency of Germany after Hitler's death to run what was left of the Third Reich on April 30th 1945, one of the first decisions of Donitz's Government in Flemsburg was to sack both Goering and Himmler. Still Donitz was convicted.

To its credit, "Nuremburg" points out that even the Allies are no angels themselves. Biddel (Canadian Len Cariou), the US judge is more concerned with making a big splash at the end of his career than seeing justice done.With no law degree and only a year at law school, Jackson has conveniently put aside his belief that capital punishment is wrong for a career move up, whilst Goering is facing death for persisting in his own beliefs. Likewise, whilst Goering is a family man of honour who has only surrendered to protect his wife and child from Hitler's demand that they should all die in a scorched earth policy, Jackson is keen to go to Germany without his wife so he can spend nearly a year humping his personal assistant, Elsie Douglas (Jill Hennessy, better known as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh in "Crossing Jordan"). Worse, Robert Jackson's summing up is centred upon a disgraceful, shameless and needless attack on the reputation of the Duke of Gloucester (1452-1485AD), a man utterly cleared of any crime with a pile of wicked propaganda.

At the end of the day though, the fact remains that after the time in office that the Nazis had, it is hard to believe that Hitler would have appointed ministers likely to see a day off to celebrate Yom Kippur with friends. Was a prosecution of each man dependent by the ability of their individual prosecutor to overcome the burden of proof worth such a loss of life? With over 20,000,000 of his countrymen dead, perhaps the Russian judge, General Ion T. Nikitchenko (Len Doncheff, better known as Leonid Brezhnev in "Dick") could be understood in his initial belief:-

"We're trying war criminals whose guilt is unquestioned by the Governments we must only determine the degree of guilt and appropriate punishment".

As Captain Gilbert concludes about his search for the nature of evil:-

"Lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendents. A genuine incapaity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think is the absence of empathy."

Ironically, a lack of empathy is exactly what Jackson and Goering have for each other by the end of this most engrossing of films.

Interestingly enough, it was the conservatives, the democrats, that have the last laugh on the Nazis. The indictments are served by Major Airey Neeve (Mark Ryan, the fencing opponent from "Charlie's Angels"), who would later go on to mastermind Mrs Thatcher's rise to power.

Better than a documentary

Film Critic: Robert L Thompsett