The very existence of "Dominique Strauss-Kahn: The Movie" reveals a darker side to Hollywood

Will his alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, get to tell her side of the story?

Filming is set to begin for a movie about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French politician who stepped down as head of the IMF after he was accused of attempted rape by a New York hotel worker in May 2011. Details about the film, which has yet to be given a title, are being kept under wraps. Directed by Abel Ferrara, who made Bad Lieutenant, it will star Gerard Depardieu as DSK and Isabelle Adjani as his multimillionaire journalist wife, Anne Sinclair. In addition to the New York incident, it has been speculated that the film may include subsequent allegations of sexual assault by French journalist Tristane Banon, and charges of "aggravated pimping in an organised gang" in Lille in which sex workers were allegedly procured for orgies. The inquiry is also examining whether one sex worker was gang-raped. Strauss-Kahn denies all the charges.

Certainly, the scandal (or scandals) has captured the imagination of many writers, dramatists, and journalists. It has been only 15 months since immigrant worker Nafissatou Diallo accused DSK of sexual assault and attempted rape, but the incident has already been the subject of multiple plays, and books, as well as this new film.

Theatrical productions in Paris and at the Edinburgh fringe looked at the incident, particularly focusing on the relationship between Strauss-Kahn and Sinclair – who stood by her man throughout the scandal, leaving him only recently. A non-fictional investigation into the couple was one of the biggest bestsellers in France this summer. A thriller inspired by the case, Night Watch by Linda Farstein, was a bestseller in the US. Meanwhile, a recently published novel by French author Stéphane Zagdanski, Burning Chaos, looks at the New York story through patients in a Manhattan psychiatric centre.

Of course, the tale of power, sex, and scandal is classic material for theatre or fiction. But is it problematic that the story is being turned into a money-spinning drama (by many different people) before the case is even closed? While criminal charges were dropped because the judge said there were “substantial credibility issues” with Diallo (a sadly common story for victims of sexual assault), she is bringing a civil suit for sexual assault and gender violence which has yet to reach court. Strauss-Kahn is counter-suing for defamation and malicious prosecution.

Zagdanski told AFP why he chose the story as the subject of his novel:  

"The DSK affair is the incarnation of contemporary folly. It fascinates enormously because he was at the summit of the world and he found himself in the gutter overnight, thanks to a six minute fellatio.”

His words demonstrate exactly why there is something unpleasant about turning the case into a fictionalised drama before it is really over. “A six minute fellatio” is a callous choice of words that overlooks the fact that DSK was not proved to be innocent of attacking Diallo: rather, the case was dropped because she was seen as a weak witness. Those are two completely different things. Victims of sexual assault are frequently judged inconsistent – in this case, lies on her asylum application for the US were a major contributing factor.

And let’s not forget that this was allegedly a violent sexual assault. Although DSK claims the encounter was consensual, a leaked medical report showed that she had serious injuries including a torn shoulder ligament. Indeed, the fact that details of exactly what state her bruised and naked body was in were all over the press before the court hearing had even taken place indicates quite how little privacy Diallo was granted. It was against this backdrop – and allegations that she was a liar and a prostitute – that she chose to tell her story to the press, a decision for which she was lambasted.

Zagdanski may be correct that people are fascinated by the story because: "It shows the two faces of our world. People are fascinated by money, the rich, the stars, Hollywood... but they see that on the other side of this world of glamour there is also banal human misery which is not so unlike ordinary folks' misery.”

Yet it is disturbing that these words completely overlook the other side of the story: the ordinary person and alleged victim who is also suffering the personal and professional fallout of this scandal. Diallo’s story may be less glamorous – and as an immigrant hotel cleaner, she is about as far away from being powerful as you can get – but as the book, film, and theatre productions continue, we must only hope that they do not entirely overlook her side of the picture.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn speaks to reporters after sexual assault charges were dropped against him. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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