The above two photos are from footage a second before and a second after the Nazi emblem atop Nuremberg's Zepplin Stadium was exploded by the US armed forces April 25, 1945.
For the next two weeks, we’re going to discuss three films that examine the allied occupation of post-War Germany. Specifically, what happens when military, judicial, congressional representatives, and by way of the audience -- civilians -- of the United States deal with a hated and now vanquished enemy. We became the leading military and economic power after World War II, but our traditionally isolationist and inward-looking mentality did not prepare us to be our enemies’ judge and jury. Our wealth, and our ethnic ties to other lands where most of our families originated, however, made us extremely sympathetic and generous to that outside world we so often distrusted. We were uneasy victors.
The three films are: “A Foreign Affair” (1948), “The Big Lift” (1950), and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).
Two months before this film came out, the Berlin Airlift began, which, for the next year, ferried fuel and food to a stranded, captive western Berlin in the allied occupied zones when the Soviet Union, attempting to force the allies out of territory they wanted, enforced a blockade on the citizens. In response, the western allies, led by the US, undertook repeated, dangerous flights in a narrow flight path to feed the Berliners, a daring operation many feared would lead to war.
This movie was shot in Berlin in 1949, and released in April, 1950, after the Berlin Airlift had ended. In two more months, we would become involved in the Korean War, and leave Occupied Germany behind -- at least in our thoughts. In 1949, The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany was created, severing the country for the next 41 years.
Dovetailing us back to “The Big Lift”.
The movie, however, being made in 1961, has a gloss to it that the earlier movies do not. Partly because it is a drama and a truly superior film in every way, but mainly because so much time has passed. When we have digested an era, we are more introspective. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is achingly introspective.
The two earlier films share with us the excitement of the moment, when we really don’t know how the political events depicted are going to turn out in real life.
She returns in “Judgment at Nuremberg” -- as the wife of a former general in the Nazi army. How telling is it that Marlene Dietrich, who in real life refused to return to Nazi Germany, became a US citizen, entertained soldiers in the USO, and was awarded the US Medal of Freedom in 1947, and the Légion d'honneur by the French government -- came to play Nazis? There were other big-name stars that could have been cast, but she was German-born, so apparently she was made for the role. Like the character played by Paul Douglas in “The Big Lift”, we seemed to paint all Germans with the same brush.
The one thing all three films have in common is the ruins.
Marlene even sings a song called “The Ruins of Berlin” in “A Foreign Affair”. She and Jean Arthur stroll among the rubble-strewn streets.
Spencer Tracy, a judge in the Nuremberg Trials rides by the ruins when he arrives in Nuremberg. They are his first introduction to Germany.
We start this series on a light note - but not without controversy. “A Foreign Affair”, one of Billy Wilder’s most clever black comedies, drew the ire of the U.S. Congress, and our military. Both were seen in a less than flattering light in this movie, in an era where many felt that as the victors, we deserved to reap the benefits of triumph -- one of which was the assumption of moral superiority.
But that is no trick when you’re dealing with Nazis. Of course almost anybody is going to be morally superior to Hitler and his goon squads. But what about the average German citizen? The ones who were complicit in an evil regime, and the ones who were not? At what point did we discover they were human, just like us?
The discovery is always a shock and an embarrassment to the victor.
Come back Thursday for the comedy, “A Foreign Affair”, when Congresswoman Jean Arthur hunts for immorality among the GIs in a smoky Berlin cabaret.