From "Eichmann-as-Victim" to "Nazi-as-Jew":
Deconstructing Justice in American Holocaust Trial Films
Forthcoming in Aftermath: The Politics of Memory
The Adolf Eichmann trial is a turning point in the popular theory of Holocaust
justice, and transitional in the very consensus that there was something called
the Holocaust for which justice was essential and overdue. The Eichmann trial is
such an important moment in understanding the history of post-Holocaust justice
because it stimulated, through the controversial international nature of its origins,
arguments over fair and adequate juridical remedies to genocide, and the stakes of
an international consensus on how to carry that out. This is all contrasted against
the origins of Holocaust justice at Nuremberg, which may seem to have resolved
these questions or, at least, to have already stimulated these discussions. However,
Nuremberg took European criminals and tried them in European trial spaces,
without cameras and at a comfortable physical and temporal distance. Israel’s
abduction and trial of Eichmann, on the other hand, raised issues of international cross-border cooperation, and the diplomatic conflicts arising from disagreement over the jurisdiction of any non-German, decades-removed parties attempting to impose belated justice. With this transitional moment in mind, my discussion of different films that represent Holocaust trials will show the under-considered, fundamental shift in the prevailing theory of the Holocaust trial that resulted from this critical moment.
Shoshana Felman and Yasco Horsman’s reading of Hannah Arendt, and the conclusions they draw regarding the theory of justice for which artistic representations tend to argue, is ill-reasoned. Actually, stagings of Holocaust trials consistently support what Horsman terms Arendt’s conservative notion of the trial and its possibilities. Four film representations of Holocaust trials illustrate the chronological and theoretical ascendancy of the Arendt-ian notion of the trial. Following an evaluation of the pre-Eichmann/Arendt theory of the Holocaust trial posited in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), I will discuss how The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) manifests the Arendt-ian claim for the unexceptionalism of the new criminal through the collapse of victim and perpetrator. After this, I will discuss two more films that endorse the limited nature of the trial space and its inadequacy as a vehicle for justice, by examining how Music Box (1989) and The Reader (2009) argue for the essentially extra-juridical nature of authentic justice while displacing didactic and therapeutic resolution.