A piece of benign propaganda and a cogent primer on the criminality of Nazi Germany, the 1948 documentary Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was never released in the United States. The 2009 Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration, under review here, is a tribute to the tenacity of the original filmmakers as well as to the speed and eloquence with which the Allies brought nearly two-dozen high-ranking defendants to justice during the first Nuremberg tribunal. Screened as a sidebar at the New York Film Festival and slotted for a one-week run at Film Forum, the restored Nuremberg cries out for the widest possible dissemination.
Made by Stuart Schulberg and his brother Bud under the aegis of the U.S. Office of Military Government, it's no wonder Nuremberg was intended to convey a specific message on behalf of the victors: In essence, "Don't worry. Never again will civilized nations allow such crimes against humanity to be committed." Given the tense postwar atmosphere in Europe and fears about Soviet encroachment, it's also not a surprise that it was exhibited in occupied Germany as part of a de-Nazification campaign but never shown domestically. The geo-political dynamics were too complicated and uncertain. One supposes the American government didn't want to upset Russia nor distract their own citizenry from the tasks at hand with any self-congratulatory and, in retrospect, idealistic rhetoric.
The negative and soundtrack were subsequently lost or destroyed and so it fell to Stuart's daughter, Sandra, and her colleague, Josh Waletzky, to oversee a painstaking restoration. They created a new 35mm negative, got Liev Schreiber to re-record the narration and had the original music score reconstructed. Using film footage and other records produced by the Germans themselves, the Allies were able to present an airtight case against the defendants, including such notorious masterminds as Hermann Goering and Rudolph Hess. The Schulberg's and their cohorts in the U.S. military's movie unit were charged with unearthing much of that film before the trial, only a fraction of which could be incorporated into the documentary.
Astoundingly, only 25 hours of the actual trial, which lasted 10 1/2 months, were filmed. This constraint makes it all the more impressive that the Schulbergs, urged on by producer Pare Larentz, were able to create such a cohesive and comprehensive movie. A lot is covered in 80 minutes, starting with the moving opening statement of Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was one of four lead Allied prosecutors. What follows is a seminal and succinct survey of the genesis of the Nazi party, going back to the rearmament efforts of 1933. Tracing the legal proceedings, the picture outlines how the party consolidated power and eventually annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, before invading Poland and setting off a global conflict. The Russian, French and British prosecutors then present umbrella counts against the defendants, including crimes involving the use of slave labor and "The Final Solution." A brief sequence is allotted to the defense and statements made by a few of the lesser-known defendants. Snippets of the summations are presented and then Schreiber reads out the verdicts one by one.
If you think you're inured to images from World War II, think again. The miles of footage entered into evidence contain views of atrocities that are sickening and dispiriting in the extreme. And if you believe there's not much more we can learn about Germany's conduct during the war, you're also mistaken. Nuremberg amounts to an incisive dossier on the heinous nature of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, as explicit and convincing as the case it makes may be, this essential non-fiction film has an inscrutable quality. Due to the enormity of the issues raised, from both historical and philosophical perspectives, Nuremberg is nearly as significant for what it doesn't show or say as for what it does.
Finally, it's a sterling example of how the medium can be deployed for the most noble of aims. At the same time, due to its mysterious suppression and the fact it was made possible by the Nazis own zeal for recording their barbarity, Nuremberg is a reminder that no film is immune to the distortions of politics, prejudice and fear.
Contact: Jeff Lipsky, 718-392-2783, firstname.lastname@example.org
Director/Screenwriter: Stuart Schulberg
Producers: Stuart Schulberg and Pare Lorentz
Genre: Documentary; English-, German-, Russian- and French-languages, subtitled
Running time: 80 min
Release date: September 29 NY