Film Review: Nuremberg

Nazi trial documentary, never before released in the U.S., proves significant and relevant.

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was a 1948 film recounting the trial and conviction of several Nazi leaders, but after a brief run in Germany, the production was shelved. Now restored and simply titled Nuremberg, the documentary makes its U.S. premiere. Audience attendance is encouraged.

The first Nuremberg trial was organized by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson and took place between Nov. 20, 1945 and Oct. 1, 1946. Commissioned by the U.S. government, director Stuart Schulberg had the daunting task of matching audio recordings from the ten-and-a-half-month trial to the mere 25 hours of filmed material; he also had to pare down and incorporate the Nazis’ own incriminating footage and documents.

Meanwhile, Schulberg had to contend with internal politics—producer Pare Lorentz (The River) left in protest over the 1947 HUAC trials and was replaced by Eric Pommer (The Blue Angel). Later, the U.S. government shelved the film without explanation. Those who recently supervised the restoration, including Sandra Schulberg, daughter of the original director, and Josh Waletzky, discovered the reason: an attempt to distribute the film through the Hollywood studios failed because of the horrific nature of the subject matter. (Some still speculate that Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today would have caused problems and undermined support for the Allied plan to rebuild Germany.)

So how does the film look and sound today? Despite a few dated “March of Time”-style moments, Nuremberg is compelling stuff, summarizing the trial’s most vital details and following the prosecution as it retraces the Nazis’ rise and fall. If there is any major fault to the original film, there could have been more trial scenes and less Nazi history. (Those expecting a Judgment at Nuremberg-type, over-the-top melodrama will be disappointed.)

If there is any criticism to be made of the restoration, it is the omission of the history of the film itself, which would have told its own fascinating story and emphasized how such an “old movie” could be important to today’s generation. (Apparently, a forthcoming book by Sandra Schulberg will illuminate this and, presumably, if Nuremberg is released on DVD, a documentary of the documentary will become an “extra.”)

Still, seeing Nuremberg more or less as it would have been presented in 1948 is a valuable experience. We witness first-hand how the world responded in a civilized way (except for the use of the death penalty) to one of the most brutal injustices of modern history. We are also reminded about some of the lasting principles that arose from the trial—including judicial independence and the fact that no one is too big for the law but also no one is too small, where “passing the buck” is no excuse for criminal behavior.

Even if we never see the perpetrators of recent wars (e.g., the Iraq invasion) stand trial, war and war atrocities are an ever-present part of the modern world, making Nuremberg a must-see.