The best of the "best of" lists

Why film critics' choices are far from simple.

Though top ten lists are often criticised for their perceived encouragement of critical myopia and crude categorisation, they can still offer illuminating insights into how different critics in different countries judge films. In this spirit, it is interesting to compare the best of 2010 polls from three leading film magazines: Britain's Sight and Sound, America's Film Comment and France's Cahiers du Cinéma.

There are immediate differences in the compilation of these lists, which must be acknowledged before making more general comments on them. Both Sight and Sound and Film Comment's lists are formed from critics' opinions taken from within their editorial team and from outside of it, and Sight and Sound's list also includes the choices of international critics (including some from Cahiers and Film Comment). Only one (Cahiers' house editorial only list) is actually a top ten, with Sight and Sound having a top 12 and Film Comment having a top 50 of 2010.

Having accepted these differences though the polls still offer tantalising comparisons. Several observations jump out when looking at the lists side by side. The first is the European predominance in both the Sight and Sound list (eight of the top 12 films) and Film Comment's list (six out of the top ten), and the contrary lack of European films in that most iconic of European film journals, Cahiers du Cinéma, which has five American films in its top ten and only three from Europe (a confirmation of Emilie Bickerton's pessimistic view of Cahiers'' current direction.) The second is the almost complete absence of documentary films from the lists (Sight and Sound has two documentaries in its top 12, Film Comment has one in its top ten and Cahiers has none), though given how poorly distributed documentaries are in both the US and Britain this is relatively unsurprising.

It is intriguing to look at Film Comment's top 20 unreleased films (i.e. films which have not yet come out in cinemas in America), a list often condemned for its connotations of cinéaste festival-circuit snobbery but one that is in fact very necessary, given the notoriously poor distribution of foreign films in America. This list is headed by the runaway winner of the Cahiers' poll (and runner up of Sight and Sound's list), Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Palme d'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Other interesting points include the high placing of Olivier Assayas's French produced terrorist biopic, Carlos, in both Film Comment's list (where it came out on top) and Sight and Sound's poll, where it was placed fourth, and its surprising absence from the Cahiers' top ten where it only featured in one of the thirteen separate writer's lists. This might be partially due to the fact that Carlos was originally shown on television in France, but it still seems a bizarre omission for such a blisteringly cinematic film.

Film Comment's and Cahiers' lists compare particularly oddly because many of the films on Film Comment's top 50 came out in 2009 in France (such as A Prophet and Wild Grass.) The absence of Werner Herzog's well received Bad Lieutenant from Sight and Sound's list is slightly odd, as is the high placing of Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme (as of yet unreleased in the UK) in all the polls. The three lists certainly give a good view of the contradictions and contentions at play in the world's film industry.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster