Nuremberg’s enduring lesson
Never before seen on U.S. screens, the documentary “Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today” compels us as much because of its complicated and fascinating history as for what it has to show, which is a lot.
Written and directed in 1948 by Stuart Schulberg and meticulously brought back to life by his daughter Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky, “Nuremberg” was commissioned by the U.S. War Department to answer a very specific need.
Once the November 1945 to October 1946 Nuremberg trial of top Nazi leaders, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, was concluded, the Allies wanted a film that would both show what had happened in the courtroom and demonstrate why such a trial for, among other things, “crimes against humanity” had been necessary.
Shown extensively in Germany, where it was a key component of the Allies’ de-Nazification campaign, “Nuremberg” was supposed to be shown in the U.S. as well, but a change in the political climate apparently doomed that. Though no hard proof exists, most experts theorize that by 1948, with the Cold War gearing up, the powers that be in Washington decided that showing a film that made the Soviet Union look good and cast a dark light on our newly minted ally West Germany was simply not politically expedient.
So “Nuremberg” disappeared, nearly literally. By the time Sandra Schulberg and Waletzky thought of bringing it back, the only print they could find was of the German version. And the soundtrack had to be reconstructed from scratch; for the restoration, Liev Schreiber effectively reads the 1948 narration.
That soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest points, allowing us to hear the Nuremberg prosecutor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, giving his legendary opening presentation. More than Jackson’s attack on the Nazis for “acts that have bathed the world in blood and set civilization back a century,” what is memorable is his eloquent defense of the need for a trial for these kinds of crimes.
“Civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored,” Jackson thundered, “because civilization cannot tolerate their being repeated.” The idea of using international law against these men as opposed to summary execution, he continued in a memorable phrase, was “one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”
“Nuremberg” begins not with Jackson but with shots of war-ravaged cities and the idea that “hopelessness circled Europe like a bird of prey.” Given that situation, the voice-over says, “the people wanted to know the answers, they wanted to know what happened and why.”
First is a succinct history of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany through what the film describes as “fraud, deceit, intimidation and coercion.” As it does throughout, and as the trial did as well, “Nuremberg” backs its assertions via copious use of the Nazis’ own films and records.
As it goes on to catalog the crimes committed, “Nuremberg” makes extensive use of the kind of concentration camp atrocity footage that has become somewhat familiar today but was all but unknown to the public when this film was made. Still, even for those who have seen a lot, there are things here that are especially disturbing. These include shots of the destroyed Czech village of Lidice, liquidated as a reprisal for the assassination of Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, and rare footage of an improvised gas chamber that killed people with automobile exhaust.
“Nuremberg” also lets us listen in to some of the testimony of the accused, which ranges from denial to talk of “idealism betrayed” as well as the words of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who insisted that Hitler “deceived the world, Germany and me.”
Perhaps the most striking thing about this film seen today is the moral clarity and assurance of the victorious prosecutors, who set a standard for “crimes against humanity” trials that is still followed. These people must have felt that what the Nazis put the world through was so awful that World War II could not help but be the war that would put an end to wars.
As we know all too well, that was not to be.
‘Nuremberg: Its Lesson
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing at: The Nuart, West Los Angeles