This is essentially a recovered film, a US-sponsored documentary on the Nuremberg war crimes trials conducted in the aftermath of World War II that was later suppressed by the government itself. It’s a restoration, but also an updating, provided with a new narration delivered in the style of the original by Live Schreiber, and with additions to the visuals of historical audio tracks as well.
The 1946 film was the work of Stuart Schulberg, brother of Budd (later the writer of “On the Waterfront”), who had been a member of John Ford’s famous wartime OSS photographic unit. Melding together documentary footage of the trials of the accused Nazis with excerpts from two previously-compiled films, “The Nazi Plan” and “Nazi Concentration Camps,” that had been made for the use of prosecutors, Schulberg constructed a newsreel-style compilation that laid out Hitler’s plan from his assumption of power through the war from the American perspective as well as offering highlights from the trial, including the prosecutor’s opening remarks, the feeble response by defense attorneys and some of the defendants themselves, and the final verdicts. An increasingly important element, of course, is the Final Solution—the genocide against the Jews.
There is no new material here, of course, but what’s surprising about Schulberg’s “Nuremberg,” which bears the subtitle “Its Lesson for Today,” is how much power it still possesses. The choice of footage, its juxtaposition with other documentary evidence, and the trial excerpts together have enormous impact, and the fast-paced forties style of presentation carries strong visceral energy. It’s also fascinating simply to see and hear the participants in the Nuremberg process—men like Goering, Hess and Speer.
Yet “Nuremberg” was suppressed by the very government that had commissioned it, and one can easily see why. Some of the images are graphic, and perhaps there was squeamishness about showing it to the American public. But more important, one suspects, is the fact that it quickly came to represent an international viewpoint that no longer fit American foreign policy. Schulberg made the film shortly after the war, when the alliance with Stalin’s Russia was still a reality. Soon, of course, Germany—at least its western portion—would become an important element of Washington’s policy of containment against the Soviet Union, and Communist Russia was the great enemy. A film in which a Soviet marshal served as one of the chief trial judges, and the 1939 Soviet non-aggression pact with Hitler, which not only allowed him to invade Poland but led to Russia’s invasion of it as well, was simply ignored, would no longer have been politically acceptable.
But while the documentary was suppressed in the United States (and the negative disappeared), it was widely shown in Germany, and Schulberg’s daughter Sandra, working with Josh Waletzky, restored the film from the best surviving print at the German National Film Archive, and the original English narration was reproduced and added, along with the original audio track to the trial footage.
The result is a film that still packs an emotional wallop, and is a significant historical document as well.