More than 60 years after it was made, "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" arrives in American theaters as something of a minor miracle.
In 1945, the U.S. prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal made two revolutionary decisions: They commissioned Stuart Schulberg, a filmmaker with the OSS Field Photographic Branch, to create documentaries about Nazi history and atrocities that would be used as evidence in the trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg. And they announced that they wanted the trial itself to be filmed as a document of a new form of transitional justice.
The resulting work was shown in Germany in 1948 and 1949 as part of the greater de-Nazification program. But it was withheld from American audiences (for reasons that have never been clear) until now.
"Nuremberg," a meticulous restoration by Schulberg's daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky, faithfully preserves the original 1948 documentary, adding new subtitles and a narration by Liev Schreiber.
The intervening decades make the film's messages all the more potent — and not only in its depiction of how economic insecurity, intolerance and demagoguery can be used to manipulate the most depraved forces of a civilized society. "Nuremberg" also stands as a fascinating record of a nascent international court system, the wages of aggressive war and a country's tentative steps toward coming to grips with its history.
Schulberg's father made "Nuremberg" for the U.S. War Department and the U.S. military government in Berlin, using footage he and his screenwriter brother Budd gathered for the two evidentiary films Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson requested: a 4-hour documentary on the history of Nazism and a 1-hour documentary about the concentration camps. Schulberg also had access to 25 hours of the trial itself, which lasted nearly a year. Cobbling together the Nazis' own propaganda footage (some of it shot by Leni Riefenstahl), some postwar footage he himself filmed and the trial testimony, Schulberg created a fascinating collage, juxtaposing the bitter truths of the war — its lies and cruelties and mass murders — with scenes of its most notorious architects being confronted about their roles.
It's a tawdry, dispiriting tableau. Viewers will be familiar with some of the most distressing images in "Nuremberg," but Schulberg and his team managed to uncover their own fresh hells, such as a film depicting an early gas chamber, using a car with a long exhaust pipe leading into a small cabin. At the trial, the accused war criminals — 22 in all, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Albert Speer — looked alternately bored and disgusted, shielding their eyes from the movie lights with dark sunglasses.
Because "Nuremberg" was aimed primarily at German audiences, some references to German history and institutions will be lost on contemporary American audiences. But the specificity of its mission adds to the allure of a film that possesses a riveting brand of rough, raw immediacy. Seen alongside the equally extraordinary "A Film Unfinished," with its Nazi footage of the Warsaw ghetto, "Nuremberg" provides yet another mesmerizing lesson in how even the most cynical propaganda can be recast in the service of truth.
And with terms like "war crimes," "military tribunals" and the "Nuremberg principles" now part of a sometimes overheated political vernacular, this heroically preserved film offers a sobering lesson in where and why many of those ideas were first conceived. The "today" of its original title may be been meant for a different generation, but "Nuremberg" couldn't be more of the moment.