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Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Restored 1948 documentary about Nazi war crimes remains relevant

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Marine Corps Sgt. Stuart Schulberg

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today

Directed by Stuart Schulberg

Opens March 18 at the Charles Theater

Clumped together closely in their courtroom box, the Nazis look like ordinary men. They sit stoically, their hair either close-cropped or slicked back. Most wear suits, though some sport uniforms without rank insignia or medals. Many wear headphones to keep up with the translation of the proceedings; a few hide conspicuously behind sunglasses. But as Nuremberg’s footage follows the Nuremberg Trials through late 1945 and on into 1946, it becomes harder and harder to fathom that these men did the monstrous things they did, as detailed in the exhaustive case mounted against them by an international team during the first international “war crimes” trial in human history. Almost more difficult to fathom is the idea that they ever thought they’d get away with them.

The Nuremberg Trials were designed to ensure that no one would ever presume that again. But in the wake of genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia and various dubiously motivated acts of international aggression since—not to mention the unending muddle that is the search for a resolution regarding the detainees held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay—the shining idea that a righteous international gathering could convene to expose and punish such evil definitively seems distant and faint. There is, then, perhaps no better time for the restoration and release of Stuart Schulberg’s long-unseen 1948 feature-length documentary on the trials.

Nuremberg begins with the sort of newsreel-style thumbnail history that is likely to remind viewers (some unpleasantly) of History Channel fare. But this isn’t a rote retelling of history as much as a piece of it. Working on behalf of the U.S. government, Schulberg worked as part of a team to uncover Nazi footage of their own atrocities, some of which was used as evidence at the trial as well as combined with film of the initial 10-month proceedings to create Nuremberg. While the archival footage is brutally compelling (e.g., men in white coats assisting walking skeletons into a small brick building, which is revealed to be hooked up to the exhaust pipe of an idling automobile), it’s the relentless narrative of the courtroom case that makes this battered-looking celluloid so gripping.

Most everything here is well-known history, but to hear the prosecutors and Schulberg lay it all out astonishes anew. How Hitler’s rising National Socialist party set fire to the German parliament building, the Reichstag, as a cover/catalyst for a de facto coup d’etat. How Hitler and his top officials reassured Austria that they had no plans to undermine the country’s sovereignty while making plans to do exactly that. How Hitler made the same reassuring noises to Czechoslovakia and Poland just months before brutally invading. How Hitler described the German people as “peaceful, peace-loving, and above all tolerant” while plotting to wipe out the country’s Jews, dissidents, and disabled, the latter termed “useless eaters.” How, as naked international aggression sprawled into world war and German ruthlessness grew, one witness testifies that Adm. Wilhelm Canaris worried aloud that the military would be held accountable one day. How Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering responded to hesitance, second-guessing, and compassion: “This incessant worrying about other people must stop.”

Germany was held accountable after the war ended, in the persons of these powerful men. Some of them remained unrepentant; Nuremberg is worth seeing if only to catch a brief snippet of Goering on the stand testifying that neither he nor Hitler had “the slightest idea” that their government was murdering millions of Jews, and indeed that he believed the Reich’s approach to its Jews involved “emigration not eradication.” (Convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he killed himself before his death sentence could be carried out.) Others seem, finally, to understand the gravity of what they took part in. In his closing statement, propagandist Hans Fritzsche makes a surprising and effective observation. The rest of the world expected nothing good from Hitler, he argues—now imagine your disappointment and disgust if you, like many Germans, did. (Fritzsche, a relatively minor functionary, was acquitted of all charges.)

In his closing statement, Russian prosecutor Roman Rodenko argues that the truth of the Nazis’ crimes had been definitively established, and that “truth is the durable result of this trial.” That truth is a little more secure now that Schulberg’s film has finally seen the light of day again.

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