Art of Justice: The Filmmakers At Nuremberg

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Years before he wrote "On the Waterfront," before that film brought him an Oscar, and before he earned the ire of many colleagues by testifying during the Hollywood communist witch hunt, writer Budd Schulberg had the distinct honor of arresting Leni Riefenstahl.

He was in Germany, assembling a film to be used at the Nuremberg trials as evidence against the Nazis. Riefenstahl, the legendary director and propagandist for Hitler, knew where the skeletons were. So Schulberg, dressed in his military uniform, drove to her chalet on a lake in Bavaria, knocked on her door, and told the panicked artist that she was coming with him.

"I tried to calm her down," says Schulberg, 91, remembering in a thin, dry voice an episode more than a half-century distant. But he needed her to identify the seemingly endless gallery of faces on film that he had been collecting. So, very much against her will, he drove her to Nuremberg in an inelegant open-air military vehicle, and listened to a sad and defensive argument that would define the rest of her life, and that no one would ever believe.

"She gave me the usual song and dance," he says. "She said, 'Of course, you know, I'm really so misunderstood. I'm not political.' "

The role of Schulberg and his brother Stuart in making films that indicted the Nazis is the subject of a public conversation at 7 this evening at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Along with Stuart's daughter, Sandra Schulberg (also in the family business and producer of the film "Quills"), Budd Schulberg will discuss the frenzied months after V-E Day when the victorious allies tried to build a public, legal and permanently discrediting case against the vanquished totalitarian regime.

They were attempting to provide what the lead prosecutor at Nuremberg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, would call, in his opening statement, "undeniable proofs of incredible events." And they were doing it on the fly. Between June 1945 and the opening of the trial on Nov. 21, Schulberg's team worked through 10 million feet of film. They would fly regularly from Berlin, where they had set up a studio, to Nuremberg, where they were coordinating their material with the prosecutors preparing the U.S. part of the Allied legal case. They were, in many ways, helping to define what the Nazi era had meant -- the ideology, the ambition, the racism and the mechanics of the National Socialists' rise to power.

They produced a four-hour document using only original Nazi film materials. Their task would have been easier if they had been allowed to use newsreels already in Allied possession, but the prosecutors wanted the authenticity of Nazi-produced footage.

In a 1946 article, Schulberg described the ensuing frantic chase to gather material. He befriended Soviet officers, in one case with ample quantities of vodka, to secure access to essential material. But often his crew would arrive to find an archive recently burned. To this day, he wonders if an SS film technician who was helping to make sense of the material was tipping off keepers of damning footage.

While Budd focused on assembling materials for the trial -- his film begins with his commanding officer reading an affidavit asserting that all the material is authentic and unaltered -- Stuart would help create a film that made the case to the larger world, especially to the Germans themselves. "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" went well beyond an orderly assemblage of film evidence, and made an argument. An eye for art -- even if it was the aesthetics of horror -- is evident throughout. The film begins with a visually stunning sequence of devastation, Europe in ruins, followed, slowly, by the emergence of desperate survivors, a scene that suggests someone knew the end of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung."

Budd Schulberg's job may have been the easier one. His film served a limited purpose, defined by the courtroom. Stuart, working under Pare Lorentz (the legendary director who made "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River"), was working on a more finished, public project. It became caught up in turf wars over the shape of the script, and who had ultimate control. Ultimately, Jackson threw his weight behind Stuart's view of the script -- perhaps the only time a Supreme Court justice has intervened in the mechanics of moviemaking.

Sandra Schulberg's research suggests that two political struggles colored the fate of her father's film. First there was a struggle between those who wanted a "sexy" film, with riveting testimony, and her father's more sober belief that the film should reflect the argument and the progress of the trial. And second, there was the gathering storm of the Cold War, and the conviction in Washington that the Soviets were our new enemies and the Germans our new allies. Although it was shown to Germans in November 1948, the English-language version was never commercially released in the United States. A series of 1949 articles in The Washington Post documents what seems a concerted government effort to suppress it. It wasn't until the 1960s that the film was given a rare showing on PBS.

Raye Farr, director of the Holocaust Museum's Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, says that the Schulberg films have provided the basic material for generations of documentaries about the war. Scholars, she says, still pore over the films, still question what they find in them. Using documents in the possession of Sandra Schulberg, they now know that a scene showing a gassing in Belarus is one of the few authentic depictions of the Nazis' first experiments with this new form of murder.

"It's been in there all along but we didn't know what it was and we didn't know if it is authentic," she says. Now they do.

Since the Schulbergs made their films, the public has become both more dependent on, and more distrustful of, visual data. Even the high standard that Budd Schulberg was required to meet -- that all the material be from original Nazi sources -- wouldn't necessarily be adequate today.

But they were working through the same issues that prosecutors in the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein face today, among them the tendency to want to punish extraordinary crimes outside the methodical requirements of ordinary justice.

"It holds up a mirror," Farr says, "to the issues that I think continue to remain contemporary."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company