Trials on Film: High Stakes for Society
As early as the 12th of June, 1945, the American prosecutor Jackson had asked the Head of the Field Photographic Branch in the United States, John Ford, to gather all the images that would constitute proof of war crimes and create the conditions to ‘"film an international trial […] followed by the preparation of a documentary film […] to film the interrogation of certain prominent Nazis". On site, the cameramen of the United States Army Signal Corps, the unit of the army in charge of communications, had to deal with challenging technical conditions that prevented them from filming the entirety of the trial. These are the excerpts of the hearings that could be recorded, where the camera moves from wide view to close-up, using a rotating turret of three lenses. From time to time, a panoramic view is provided, going, for example, from the judges tables to the defendants, via the witness box. All of this footage was edited into a chronological montage of 25 hours, in 2006, by the team putting together a film called Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes, held in the United States Museum of the Holocaust in Washington D.C. and the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial), in Paris. Completing these archives are the complete audio recordings of the debates and their transcription, in the four languages used in the trial, with a selection of documents making up the prosecution's case (42 volumes available in many libraries, including the French National Library).
This exceptional written and audio-visual package comes from the willingness of the Chief Prosecutor to put together perennial and international archives, in the image of this inaugural trial, bringing together legal and historical truth, to educate future generations and prevent any of the crimes revealed by the court from being denied while the archives remained in existence.
The selected sequences are situated at the time when the court heard the testimony from two SS officers, Otto Ohlendorf, the head of a police unit (Einsatzgruppe), and Dieter Wisliceny, one of Adolf Eichmann's close associates, whose role he revealed at that very moment. Otto Ohlendorf admits to having eliminated 90 000 men, women and children in Ukraine, the majority of which were Jewish, all the while sharing the fact that his only worry was of the psychological welfare of his men in committing such an act. Dieter Wisliceny, when asked as to whether or not he was aware if 450 000 Jewish Hungarians had been killed as part of the Final Solution, answers laconically and definitively "yes". Outraged by such insolence, Robert H. Jackson comes to the conclusion that the fate of the twenty-one defendants present in the dock is less important than that of the organisations, of which the crimes are not collateral to the conspiracy, but highlights the deliberate intention to commit them. The awareness of the criminal scale of the destruction of Jews in Europe – which for Americans was not at the heart of the trial – thus took shape during the trial, to such an extent that – in order to qualify it – two of the prosecutors resorted to the term "genocide".
When, on the 23rd May 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, that the Nazi Adolf Eichmann – in hiding since 1950 – had been extracted from Argentina so that he might be tried in Israel as the "Organiser of the Final Solution", the stupor this provoked revealed the extent to which – in the collective imagination – the name of Eichmann still evoked the precise way in which he was involved in the policy to physically destroy the Jews of Europe.
The trial, much sought after by the Israeli Executive branch, reused many of the exhibits employed during the Nuremberg Trials, making the trial – which began on the 11th of April, 1961 – "the Nuremberg for the Jewish people" (Ben-Gurion).
It was the first face-to-face encounter between a hangman and his victims, the first trial that was entirely devoted to what was not yet called the "Shoah" or Holocaust. The question of the anti-Jewish policy of the Nazis took centre stage. The accusation of "crime against the Jewish people" was one of the 15 counts of indictment.
The 121 sessions of the trial write an all-encompassing volume of the "Final Solution", a volume written by approximately a hundred witnesses called to testify, which overwhelmed the journalists present and gave a voice to the different stages of persecution, captured by the camera of director Leo Hurwitz.
In this configuration, the Presiding Judge Moshe Landau, following Anglo-Saxon Law practices, first let the witnesses speak for several weeks, the cross-examination of the defendant only took place afterwards.
Adolf Eichmann might appear to be consigned to the rear of the stage during the trial, locked up in his glass cage. But this would belie his significant involvement, in written and oral forms, both during the court sessions and from his cell, in the service of a counter-narrative to the anti-Jewish policy of the 3rd Reich.
The opening sequences are thus mute, showing the defendant putting together the archives of his own trial. Upon his arrival each time, he sets himself up in the docks, each time with an ever-growing number of files in front of him. From the one file present on the 18th of April, 1961, by the 5th of May his corpus of personal writings make up a vast quantity of files that he refers to and cites during interrogations. While Adolf Eichmann participates in the edification of his own defense, he also constitutes an unprecedented source. Several sequences thus reveal the interplay and exchange of notes between Adolf Eichmann and his lawyer.
The confrontation with witnesses, with Hansi Brand for example, confirms the defendant's attitude: lively, he jots down all the information provided by the witness. Ms. Brand spoke of the deportation of Hungarian Jews at the end of the War, a period marked by the negotiation of the liberation of a million Jews for 10 000 trucks.
We again see Eichmann in Session N° 79, still making use of the documents and files that he has collated. Concentrating on his lengthy deposition in German, Eichmann begrudgingly pauses to allow his words to be translated.
The film culminates in Session N° 100. Adolf Eichmann comes out of his glass cage for the one and only time, so as to point out, on a map, the location of Bialystok (Poland). The courtroom holds its breath, the officials responsible for the audio recording lean in to get a better look.
Leo Hurwitz's cameras were made available for the trial which turns, for the first time, to the single question of the extermination of the Jews. He endeavours to give space and time not only to the witnesses, but also to the defendant, whose enclosure in the docks he limits, thanks to the freedom he obtained by responding to the need for discretion in the placement of his four cameras, alternating between shots of Eichmann, the witnesses, the court and the audience, choosing from these angles to edit the footage in real time.
The excerpt of the footage shown here was selected to focus on the appearances of Eichmann, which were not as well known to the public: this is in contrast to the film of the trial, which received heavy controversial media coverage and concentrated more on the witnesses than the defendant.
Forty-three years after the events, this extraordinary trial opens in the Lyon Cour d'assises (Criminal Court), in a room specially equipped within the courthouse, in the presence of 126 witnesses and 39 lawyers representing the plaintiffs. French public opinion is rife with expectation, Klaus Barbie's arrest having long been prepared by Mr and Mrs Klarsfeld.
This trial, the first in France to be centred on the genocide perpetrated on the Jews, also held the particularity of being the first to be based on legal arsenal that had only recently been voted upon, motivated by the upcoming hearings. More particularly, the law pertaining to the constitution of audio-visual archives for the French Justice Ministry, as advocated by Robert Badinter, was quickly drafted and presented to Parliament, with the perspective of allowing the trial to be filmed in its entirety. As well as this, the Decree of the 20th of December, 1985 regarding the Klaus Barbie affair, drafted by the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeals (Cour de cassation), provides the very definition of a crime against humanity.
The first trial ever filmed in France as part of the French Justice Ministry's audio-visual archives is a test-case for this law, challenging the circumstances the legislator wished to provide for. The recording was attributed to FR3 Lyon, with Daniel Borgeot as Director. Three mobile cameras record the hearings simultaneously, another so-called secondary camera automatically films a wide shot of the courtroom as a whole.
On just the third day of the hearings, however, Klaus Barbie definitively leaves his trial, refusing to reappear. He would only return for the 18th hearing and then for the verdict. Faced with this dramatic turn of events, the Presiding Judge, André Cerdini, requests the continuation of the trial. Every day, the defendant is called in vain and his absence noted. The witnesses thus speak opposite empty docks. For some of them, their anger prevents them from speaking. For others, this moment liberates them. Barbie's physical absence provides strong visibility for his lawyer, Jacques Vergès.
The significance of the proof provided is also highlighted during the trials' hearings: a telex sent by Barbie to Berlin on the evening of the 6th of April, 1944, announcing that "This morning, the Jewish children's house ‘Colonie d'enfants' in Izieu (Ain) has been cleaned out" is the subject of lively debate.
The two witness statements shown in this edit, selected from among the 129 that were filmed during the trial, demonstrate the significant emphasis on the plaintiffs. Julie Francescini mentions the memories of what she felt during the torture she underwent and, turning towards Klaus Barbie, who was present that day, recognises him without hesitation. The evocative power of Sabine Zlatin's testimony on the house in Izieu had such an impact that, several years later, the site was transformed into a museum.
Above and beyond their legal significance within the framework of the trial, this testimony, as is explained by the Chief Prosecutor Pierre Truche, echoes personally and symbolically for some of the witnesses, who — through the deeds they describe — end up consecrating the very notion of what constitutes a crime against humanity.
The sequence that follows is that of Jacques Vergès' plea, which shows his penchant for performance and his capacity to highlight his role, without giving the slightest attention to the witnesses in the trial.
Numerous films, television documentaries and DVD box-sets have already enabled a wide audience to immerse themselves in these hearings.
The introductory sequence establishes the singular context of this trial. Paul Touvier is led to a glass cage, an unprecedented apparatus for a trial in France, which reflects the gravity of the accusations against this man: he is indeed the first French person to be charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. This same cage would also be called into question by the defense in that it might hinder the oral hearings, which in turn led to several of its walls being removed. The cage's presence is there to provide dual protection, firstly protecting the audience from the defendant and secondly protecting the defendant from any potential attack. Indeed, the recent assassination of René Bousquet — on the 8th of June, 1993 — deprived the public of the trial of this high-ranking public official in the Vichy regime.
The first questions that Presiding Judge, Henri Boulard, asks Paul Touvier show the audience a relatively inexpressive — even indifferent — defendant. His answers are short: at times he is content to answer in the negative, provoking astonishment and even laughter within the courtroom.
The sequence showing the breaking of the seals is particularly interesting, as it highlights several issues: the first two boxes contain documents from the trials of Paul Touvier in absentia before the Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946, as he was in hiding at the time. Next come the defendant's personal documents, notably a repertory that he is asked to authenticate. These sequences express the importance of proof in a trial where the most insignificant personal object may be analysed.
The testimony provided by Pierre Lesage, former member of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), serves to contextualise the trial even more, a trial that came several years after that of Klaus Barbie: his testimony in both trials establishes the link between the two men who cooperated in Lyon. The second witness, Louis Goudard, former Head of the FFI, confirms this link, while the plaintiffs' lawyer, Alain Jakubowicz, presents Touvier as Barbie's alter ego.
The closing remarks by Chief Prosecutor Hubert de Touzalin highlights the symbolic importance of such a trial, above and beyond the condemnation of Paul Touvier: this is truly a trial for the history books due to its sheer moral dimension.
With its 380 hours of recordings, the trial of Maurice Papon constitutes the most extensive of the French Justice Ministry's audio-visual archives. Presiding Judge Castagnède specified that indeed for this process, the issue at hand was to allow people to speak freely and to highlight the involvement of the French Government in the deportation of Jewish people, through the role of one of the officials in the upper ranks of its administration.
The sequences bear witness to this unprecedented situation in France, which is for the first time adjudicating on the direct participation of its administration in crimes against humanity. Maurice Papon's career following the Second World War has received exceptional attention on the French legal scene. His personality sets the tone for the trial: a rosette in his button-hole, lively, incisive, this is a man determined to defend and exonerate himself. At his own hearing, it is the defendant who leads the debate.
From just the second sequence, we can sense the argumentation that constitutes Papon's defense: no responsibility is incumbent upon France, but upon German domination and, only indirectly, upon his service to the Prefecture of La Gironde. Citing "German cunning" with regards to the directives given by Pierre Garat, the Head of the Department of the Jewish Question at Gironde Prefecture, Papon simply rejects any wrongdoing of which he is accused, presenting it as the fruit of submission to the invader. Later, on the 5th of January 1998, Maurice Papon again makes use of these arguments in answer to the questions from the Chief Prosecutor Henri Desclaux, saying: "we were fooled by the Germans, they tricked us [...] any interaction we had with [them] was stained with the kind of hypocrisy typical of the Germanic race".
The trial also takes on a symbolic dimension for the plaintiffs. Éliane Dommange, née Alisvaks, the daughter of Jewish deportees, appeals to the Presiding Judge to project the portraits of her two parents – the last words of her mother, to which she lends her own voice, resound throughout the courtroom, darkened for the projection of these images.
This moving sequence is then followed by the interrogation on the role of Maurice Papon in the decision-making process.
The final plea from Michel Zaoui, the plaintiffs' lawyer, underlines the responsibility shouldered by the Government, firstly by what he qualifies as an administrative crime. The footage highlights the fact that the plea is framed at a time when the lawyer might well think that this trial is the last to be held on an accusation of crimes against humanity. The history of justice and trials would show, however, that Papon's trial is merely one in an ever-growing list of trials for this specific charge.
The trial that starts on the 8th of December 2010, after nine years of legal proceedings, opens to a legal arena void of any defendants and not a single defense lawyer. "This trial is of a unique nature. It will constitute grounds for jurisdiction as it legally accounts for the deeds it describes. There will be no other possibility for subsequent trials. This is Pinochet's posthumous trial," stated lawyer for the plaintiffs Sophie Thonon, prior to the commencement of hearings. It is thanks to the universal jurisdiction of the French courts that France might charge the defendant with the crimes of enforced disappearance, an infringement that continues to this day.
From the very beginning of the trial, the tone is set in the calling of the fourteen defendants, followed by silence after each name. The hearing is held by default, rendering the presence of a public jury futile. The few actors present make the camera quite static, given the limited number of angles required.
The footage attaches itself to the witnesses whose speech is omnipresent throughout the hearings, due to the impossibility of adversarial legal debate. The testimony provided then serves to charge not only the defendants but also that which they represent – the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, giving these proceedings the nickname of the "Pinochet Trial".
Stéphane Hessel, a character witness, takes the stand, speaking on the subject of international justice. Vanessa Klein bears witness to the way in which she learned of the disappearance of her father. Baeza Pas Rojas, a neuropsychiatrist, specifies that the disappearance of close family and friends constitutes not only a form of torture for the person being held against their will, but also a form of long-term psychological torture for their families. Christian Van Yurick qualifies the violation of Human Rights by this political regime. Erika Hennings, Chanfreau's widow, arrested and then tortured at her husband's side prior to his disappearance, underlines the symbolic importance of her words inside the courtroom. Carmen Hertz speaks of the systemic organisation of the governmental dictatorship, and specifically of the role of DINA, the Chilean secret police, in the disappearances, for which the goal was to destroy the social and political fabric of dissidence.
The final remarks given by the plaintiffs' lawyer, Benjamin Sarfati, provide for an unprecedented scene in which he pays homage to the four missing persons, the audience present answering with one voice, as the Chilean tradition dictates. At the end of the verdict, the audience again makes its presence known. In unprecedented scenes for such a trial, the audience applauds the final remarks made by Presiding Judge, Hervé Stephan, thanking him for the humanity he demonstrated throughout the hearings, as well as for the long-awaited justice that was handed down.
These recorded archives bear witness to an unprecedented historical situation for France: the genocide related to family and neighbourly bonds; the involvement of administrative & military authorities and local militia; the tight topography and chronology of the massacre; the murderous backlash on religious grounds. The trial of former soldier Pascal Simbikangwa highlights the constant interaction between soldiers, interahamwe (a militia financed by the Hutus in power) and administrative authorities.
The film opens upon the smiling face of the defendant, Pascal Simbikangwa, sitting in the docks, joking with one of his lawyers, Mr Epstein. The Presiding Judge, Leurent, opens the hearings.
The Presiding Judge highlights the role of the defendant in the Death Squads, a para-military Hutu militia that was active prior to the genocide, with the objective of eliminating any of the regime's political opponents. They are the actors in the genocide and are some of those that armed other militias within the civilian population.
In this sequence, a witness places this trial within dense ethnographic history: Jean-Pierre Chrétien, a historian and researcher, links the acts perpetrated in the course of this genocide to the post-colonial period. As well as this, he reveals his affective bonds with several victims and, by doing so, admits his subjectivity. Pascal Simbikangwa endeavours to discredit him.
Psychiatric expert Françoise Sironi underlines the importance of the socio-cultural importance of, and clinical research on, political violence. In her conclusions, she highlights the notion of denial, the line of defense employed by the defendant.
Throughout the sequence that shows a cross-examination, Presiding Judge Olivier Leurent pushes Pascal Simbikangwa to specify his links with the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (Mouvement révolutionnaire national pour le développement (MRND), the majority party in Rwanda.
The trial of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis is the opportunity to see new actors appear: the figure of the witness in custody in the form of Valérie Bemeriki, former journalist at Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), who provides testimony via video conference from a Rwandan prison cell where she is serving her sentence. Once she had highlighted her selfless willingness to bear witness so as to participate in the reconstruction of Rwanda, her request for immunity seems to contradict that very notion.
Before interrogating the witness Higiro, a genocide escapee, the Public Prosecutor Bruno Sturlèse showed great empathy, understanding how much of an ordeal it must have been for this man to have to repeat this testimony for different jurisdictions over the past fifteen years. The Presiding Judge introduced the delicate administration of proof of testimony, that must always be formulated according to the same terms.
The film closes on the verdict: Pascal Simbikangwa is condemned, by unanimous decision, to 25 years imprisonment.
The sentence is confirmed upon appeal by the Bobigny Cour d'assises (Criminal Court) from the 25th of October to the 3rd of December, 2016. The appeal trial is also recorded as part of the French Justice Ministry's historical archives. He is definitively condemned following the rejection of his cassation complaint on the 24th of May, 2018.
- The Trial of Ngenzi and Barahari, the role played by local administrations in the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi
After a two-month trial at the Paris Cour d'assises (Criminal Court), Octavien Ngenzi and Tito Barahira were both deemed guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity before being condemned to life sentences. They appealed this decision. The new trial began on the 2nd of May, 2018.
This trial is one of the involvement of local powers in the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis in one Rwandan town, Kabarondo. The systematic stigmatisation of one section of the population, before the events and during the month of April 1994, led to its participation in the nation-wide generalised plan to massacre the Tutsis. On the 13th of April, 1994, the town experiences a major event in the genocide. Among those involved are former Mayor, Tito Barahira (from 1976 to 1986), and current Mayor Octavien Ngenzi, in office since 1986. Kabarondo is a town in eastern Rwanda, located in the District of Kibungo, home to 40 000 inhabitants, of which 3 000 are Tutsi. Few among them would survive.
While the audio-visual recording accounts for the presence of both the defendants in the docks, it takes an individual approach to highlighting the proportion of responsibility that belongs to each of them, with regards to the actions under investigation.
From the very first sequence, viewers can feel the complexity of the socio-cultural context in which the trial occurs: the presence of interpreters is required from the very beginning of the trial. Cultural distance, above and beyond language barriers, is also located in the religious; each testimony is punctuated by references to belief systems and truth values.
We also find this reminder of Christian precepts in the hearings of Florian Muskeshambuka and Benoît Mukahigiro.
The sequences that follow give the opportunity for Father Oreste Incimatata to speak, the priest did so for several hours about the context in Kabarondo prior to the genocide, before describing in great detail the massacre perpetrated within the walls of his church. The death count would reach 2 000. This sequence also attests to the psychological and physical exhaustion experienced by witnesses with regards to the hearing.
The excerpts then present the defendants via their defense strategy. Tito Barahira denies any involvement in the genocide and declares himself the victim of a conspiracy. Octavien Ngenzi does not admit any participation either: "I gave everything I had for the Tutsis".
Tito Barahira's attitude leads to the dramatic turn of events of the 28th of June (the 34th day of the hearings). The interrogation led by Mr Bourgeot provokes a rupture in the traditional defense mechanism. The camera films the entire room when the lawyer ends up disavowing the words of his own client: "at this point, even I cannot follow you!" Octavien Ngenzi even makes an exasperated gesture towards his co-defendant.
The Presiding Judge Xavière Simeoni is forced to call for a recess when Octavien Ngenzi starts to insinuate that decisions made in France by the court will be known in Rwanda before the trial has even ended.
The film closes with the final arguments by Sabrina Goldman who highlights the trial's lack of media coverage and the lack of awareness of the trial among the general public, an attitude which echoes the statements made by French President François Mitterrand and his Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, at the time of the events.
The verdict handed down was the rigorous application of criminal law, with regards to the exceptional seriousness of the acts committed and the denialist positions taken up by the defendants; Tito Barahira and Octavien Ngenzi are condemned to life imprisonment.
Translation by Huw Ryan Wogiel