Chautauqua Day 2: Ghost of Goering

It’s the first full day at the Institution and, being a Sunday, it’s starting out pretty lazy. Sophie slept in with me until about 9:00 making us both miss breakfast. We thought about hitting the sermon, but we were late for that too. Yesterday, I removed my watch in protest to anything scheduled and I’m paying the price a little bit today. Still, being a Sunday, it’s all OK.

I signed on to see a screening of “Judgement at Nuremberg” this afternoon over at the Chautauqua Uniplex. This is the only theater I can think of that still has a balcony — much class, indeed. I chose a seat near the back.

Two rows in front of me is a guy with a red shirt. It’s a bright, sun-shiney red shirt that screams Happy Day. He just finished a conversation with the Institute film critic, David Zinman, about why the regularly scheduled sessions are on Wednesday evenings; apparently, there are many Weekend Warriors (Red Shirt being one) who are at home on the weekdays and miss the great screenings throughout the season and would they please consider changing the nights for this group. The film critic is taking it under advisement. Red shirt grabbed a soda, took a sip, and smacked his lips together a few times, trying to taste it real, real good, then stormed out of the theater to the concession stand. He returned a few minutes later, drinkless.

So, seat near the back. I chose a seat near the back for two reasons. First, I like to see the whole screen without turning my head one bit. Second, the seats are a little smaller than in most theaters and I felt like I’d be more comfortable with a seat on either side of me. Now, we’re in “Judgement at Nuremberg” once again. That, thrust into the Chautauqua crowd, and you’ve got a powerful mix of blue hairs who last saw this film the day it was released, back in 1961. There are two characteristics of this particular demographic: They, too, prefer sitting alone, and they are all attrociously far-sighted. Within about three minutes to the start of the film, the back half of the theater was sardine-full of fidgeting and frustrated elderly people.

And me.

I started up a conversation with the fellow next to me. I love sitting next to older folks in this type of setting because I feel like the planets are alligning just right for me to really learn something from someone who has been there. Someone with a story to tell. I don’t know where I turned south in this case, but this guy and his wife got into some tirade about how all the people in this movie are today, in fact, dead. Spencer Tracy: Dead. Judy Garland: Dead. Burt Lancaster (whom I had mistakenly said was still around, thinking of Kirk Douglas – what a row): Dead. I think, based on our scientific survey of the four older people around us, that of all the people in the movie, only two are still with us: William Shatner and Maximillian Schell. Though, as the discussion went on, Schell’s Broadway run as Ernst Jannig (Lancaster’s film role) was a complete bomb in 2001 so he might as well be dead.

And here’s a testament to the pull of Chautauqua: the film arrived early Saturday afternoon for a 1:30 Sunday screening. As the critic was going through the order, he noticed that two reels were missing. Frustrated, he called the theater manager with whom he hunted frantically for a replacement, starting with MGM in California and working all the way down to Blockbuster Video. In the end, nothing could be found. They called MGM back again.

According to the film archive representative, they had nothing available to rush them for this screening — all the other reels were in use for the weekend. The only thing left in the vault for this film is the archival print, straight off the original, left in Hollywood only to master production reprints, not a loaner. The critic came back with our story, that some people, some veterans, had planned their summer around this screening and the discussion to follow, and what were they to say to them? That the show was to be cancelled? Surely not. This is, after all, Chautauqua.

MGM archives packaged up the archival copy and sent it via private plane and courrier from Los Angeles to Buffalo, then by car to the Institute. The courier had the print in the theater by 1:30, supervised the spooling onto the projector, and waited in the booth during the screening, then hand carried the reels back to California this afternoon. It’s 11:00 or so as I write this. I imagine he’s just getting home.

The upshot of all this, other than being a cool story, is that this afternoon, the single best copy of this spectacular film was screened in this little town in New York, on a big screen, with great sound, and a fanatically appreciative audience. And that just doesn’t happen every day. The critics in the audience said during the panel interview afterward that in their lives of being fans and students of this film, they’d never seen it on the big screen. A real treat.

I would imagine one of the reasons the Broadway adaptation was such a bomb was the inappropriateness of the content to the times. Pre-9/11, who was thinking about race as a political issue day-to-day? Now, however, in this political climate, in this day and age, I don’t think there’s a more stirring commentary on life as a political being.

I learned a lesson from this film that I can honestly say I’d never thought about before in quite this level of clairity and here it is: Genocide starts with one act by one individual, one time. It doesn’t start with a people, a race, a nation, but one rogue thought that, in retropect, is nothing more than protectivist. That’s the lesson of the slippery slope. That’s the lesson of healthy respect for national momentum.

Lancaster’s Jannig was written so eloquently, so powerfully. In not so graceful a summary, he talks of his country prior to the national socialist uprising, prior to the Nazis. He talks of the hunger, the struggle for everyday Germans. He says that Hitler, this funny little man, gave them for the first time a reason to hold their heads high and proud. He taught them of the ills of society and sold them the ideal that the loss of a few civil liberties around the fringes could save the nation as a whole. From there, it was the ideals of a people that threatened the nation. From there, it was nothing to arrive at the soul of the pure bread third reich. That by that time, by the time the educated and right-thinking had turned their heads on one atrocity too many, it was far too late to turn back. The soul of their nation had changed, and they were in the middle of it.

At one point in the film, Marlene Dietrich laments to Tracey’s character that there was no way for her to have known what was going on in the camps, the mass exicutions, the showers. There was just no way she could have known. Tracey responds: “The way I gather it, no one in this country knew what was going on in those camps.”

Tomorrow at 10:45, Tom Ridge is speaking the Chautauqua audience. I expect fireworks, and I admit I’m in more of a space to hear it after this film. As the lead prosecutor says of his country: “You know something about us Americans: We’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it and we’re not good at it.” In the discussion following the film, an audience member brought up the point that following WWII, the US arguably occupied Germany and then Japan, all but rebuilding fallen empires. Again, arguably for good results. Was it our business? Was it our business to be there in the first place, as a show of American might? Have we learned anything from that history that will teach us new lessons for Afganistan and Iraq? Probably not. The end and the means to reach it are far to handsome of bed-fellows.

Back at the house, Emma’s cutting a molar. Her little head is smoking hot to the touch and her poor chest is congested. Cutting teeth. What miserable torture for the little people. The house is now full. There are ten of us under one roof, including two babies and a nine-year-old. The quarters are getting very, very cramped.