Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 23, 2019

Prosecuting Evil; Rocking the Couch

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

On January 29, 2018 I wrote about the Chenogne massacre that was examined by Reveal, a syndicated investigative reporting radio show that can be heard here. Like everything else done by Reveal, it made for compelling radio, especially an interview with Ben Ferencz, the 98-year old buck private who was an investigator of Nazi war crimes and shortly after leaving the army became a lead prosecutor at Nuremberg. The Chenongne massacre was a mass murder of captive German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge in retaliation for Americans being murdered in the same way a few days earlier. The Reveal reporter was interested in getting Ferencz’s reaction to this war crime in light of his 70-year long career as a legal expert on war crimes. Basically, he regarded the Chenogne massacre as a war crime but one that would never be prosecuted by a state that had just won the war. When asked if Stephen Spielberg and Tom Brokaw were justified in calling WWII GIs “the greatest generation”, he scoffed at the notion and stated emphatically that the greatest generation are those who resist war, like during Vietnam.

With that fresh in my memory, I was eager to watch a new documentary titled “Prosecuting Evil” that opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York and that will open at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on March 1. The film is basically an interview with Ferencz, who is as sharp and incisive as was on in the Reveal show. In addition to the interview, there are tributes to his work from a number of people with human rights credentials—some legitimate and others not at all. Among those with bogus credentials are Alan Dershowitz and Wesley Clark. All of the others are credible even though they share the same flaw as Ferencz, namely the ill-founded belief that global justice is possible as long as the capitalist system exists.

Besides the talking heads, there is chilling footage of the survivors of death camps as well as those who did not survive, including their charred remains in a Nazi crematorium. A 25-year old Ben Ferencz is seen making an opening statement at Nuremburg just barely visible over a lectern. He laughs at what it took to make him even this visible. He had to stand on a stack of books.

Ferencz was someone who benefited greatly from American capitalism in its ascendancy. He came with his parents at a very early age and grew up in New York when it was in its social democratic golden years. He graduated from CCNY and then went to Harvard Law School, benefiting from a project that paid tuition for students specializing in criminology, a focus that prepared him for his work at Nuremberg.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is devoted to the 98-year old man weighing in his mind whether global justice was possible, even if he counts as one of his major contributions the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is being touted as a body that might prosecute Bashar al-Assad for Nazi-like war crimes. Since we hear him speaking over images of Donald Trump surrounded by his henchmen, his agonizing over this question is understandable.

It would be interesting to see Ferencz and Yale law and history professor Samuel Moyn in a panel discussion. Moyn is the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World” and earlier works that diagnose the barriers that make peace and social justice a Quixotic venture. In 2012, he wrote an op-ed piece for the NY Times titled “Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore” that conveyed the crisis of our age that in many ways echoes the futility of earlier efforts such as the League of Nations:

For those who long for a state and a world that not only protect liberties but also promote well-being, the human rights movement hasn’t made enough of a difference. Human rights have succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities but have proved less able to promote the good life for people suffering less spectacular wrongs.

That human rights have come down to earth since the days of the glamorous dissidents doesn’t make them useless. But it does mean that the utopia they call to mind is now inseparable from the realities of the world as it exists — from states to international bodies to transnational movements. For that reason, Chinese dissidents and their Western allies will need to be even more creative than their predecessors were in using human rights norms to achieve a reformed government.

Most of all, when they appeal to international human rights, they will have to face the fact that these once pure ideals are now much harder to separate from the impure world of daily policy making, international power and unfulfilled hopes.

Let me conclude briefly with a recommendation for a documentary titled “Rocking the Couch”  that went straight to VOD, including Amazon Prime. It is about the “casting couch” that victimized a group of women in the 1990s along the same lines as Harvey Weinstein but by relatively small players in the film industry, namely a couple of agents named Jerry Blumenthal and Wallace Kaye.

So desperate were young women to crack into the industry that they allowed Blumenthal and Kaye to sexually assault them on the slim possibility that this would lead to getting a role in a film or TV show. Now in their forties and fifties, they are older and wiser. Among them is Carrie Mitchum who is the granddaughter of Robert Mitchum and extremely acute in her understanding of the power relations in Hollywood. At one point, she says “the whole commodity is sex”, about as good a description of the film industry as can be found.

Among the revelations in the film is that the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) did nothing to seek justice for these women in the 1990s. Union officials told the women that they should write a letter complaining about the men and that was about it. In the 1930s, the SAG was a radical union that fought for the same kinds of gains that CIO unions were fighting for: higher wages, job protection, etc. It is very likely that there were no special concerns about “casting couch” abuses back then but whatever there was probably got even less attention during the witch-hunt when Communists were expelled from the union. Ronald Reagan became president of SAG in 1947 and probably cared about as much as protecting women from sexual predators as Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump. Watching the film persuaded me that a documentary about the politics of the Hollywood film industry is sorely needed. Any film students or aspiring filmmakers might want to look into this.

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