Nüremberg lore

A German-language film documenting the Nuremberg trials has been restored in English more than 60 years later.

nuremberg trial 298 88ap (photo credit: AP [file])
nuremberg trial 298 88ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
In 1948 as part of the US government’s propagandistic efforts to denazify and reeducate the German public, a German-language film documenting the Nuremberg trials was released under the name Nüremberg: Its Lesson for Today (in German, Nürnberg und seine Lehre). Although an English-language version was prepared, it was shelved and never widely released theatrically in the United States for political reasons. Now, more than 60 years later, the film has been restored and is featured on the penultimate day of the Jerusalem Film Festival.
The film’s writer/director Stuart Schulberg had already been part of a team commanded by the great Hollywood director John Ford. He had been sent to Germany along with his brother, writer Budd Schulberg, in 1945 to compile Nazi footage that would serve as evidence for the upcoming proceedings in Nuremberg. He was sent back after the trial to prepare the film that would show the German people (and the world) that the Allies gave their enemies the kind of chance to defend themselves in court that the Nazis never once afforded others. The film was restored by Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg, and Josh Waletzky, under the title Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration).
Ms. Schulberg started working on the project in 2004. “It took me a long time to raise the money. Not that it cost so much, but it was difficult as an individual to be taken seriously in terms of film restoration.”
She later teamed up with Josh Waletzky, a director who had started out as a sound designer, and who became her main creative partner on the project.
“After my mother passed away, I inherited all these documents as well as a copy of the film,” she says. “It had been sitting on a bookshelf which was used for holding the television and other things.”
The documents, which she soon realized had a historical value, “told the story of the making of the film... Suddenly experts and archivists were coming to see them – and I learned how important they were.”
Billed by its restorers as “one of the greatest courtroom dramas in history” and “one of the most historic films never seen,” the film closely follows the proceedings of the famous trial. It points out the trial’s dependence on evidence left behind by the Nazis themselves, in particular notes, memos, letters and even filmed footage. It also portrays the Nazi government as “burning” German freedom in what the prosecution claimed was a conspiracy.
The film gives us a picture of the kinds of behind-the-scenes machinations that Hitler and his followers set upon in their orchestration of the Reichstag fire, Austria’s “request” to send German troops and Czechoslovakia’s “agreement” that Bohemia and Moravia become German protectorates. It provides numerous examples of Hitler publicly stating that he had no intention of invading any of his European neighbors, together with internal correspondence in which he is recorded to have said, “I did not organize the armed forces in order not to strike.”
Only after the Nazi authorities are established as being a calculated belligerent government – conspiring and then acting on their plans to disturb European peace – are the issues of anti-Semitic policy and Jewish genocide addressed. This happens at the end of the prosecution’s case in a kind of climax of horror, incorporating footage from Nazi Concentration Camps and The Nazi Plan, films compiled under the supervision of Budd Schulberg created as courtroom evidence to show the raw reality of Nazi inhumanity.
After the American, British, French and Soviet representatives of the prosecution rest their case, the defense has its chance to make its case, and we are shown the way that each Nazi leader tried to pretend that either he didn’t know about what was really going on or he had no power to prevent it. Several express their deep disappointment at Hitler’s betrayal of their “idealism.”
One important feature of the film is that the audience hears the actual voices of these men as they utter their words. “In the original version it was all narration – you never heard the voices of those in the courtroom,” says Schulberg. “I felt it was important to hear the voices of the accused and the lawyers trying to defend them.
Fortunately, the whole trial was recorded in sound in all these different languages. What we had to do was match them up.”
Indeed, one of the stronger moments of the film comes at the end in the form of a last statement from accused Nazi leader Albert Speer – himself guilty of being a facilitator of aggression – warning against the dangers of authoritarianism. “Following orders blindly,” he says, “turned out to be a mistake.”
Because the film was never released, today’s viewers seeing it for the first time are, in a sense, put in the shoes of wartime survivors. It takes us back to a historical moment in which these men’s fates were not yet decided. We are given a glimpse into the process through which some of them were sentenced to hang, some given prison terms and a few acquitted. And we are shown in striking black and white that even promises of nonaggression are sometimes followed by catastrophic war.
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today plays on Friday, July 16, at 12 noon at the Cinematheque. For more information, see www.jff.org.il.