'Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today' offers a compelling return to trying times

(Images From Schulberg Family Archive/schulberg Productions)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010

A moment dramatic enough to be in a movie occurred during the making of "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today," Stuart Schulberg's documentary about the historic international military tribunal held in Germany in 1945-46. Schulberg and his brother Budd were searching for film footage of the Nazi regime and its horrors for use as evidence at the war crimes trial. And that search eventually took Budd to the doorstep of Leni Riefenstahl, the famous actress, director and Nazi propagandist, who in 1945 was living in Kitzbuhel, Austria.

"When she saw there was a uniformed officer at the door, she began screaming for her husband," says Sandra Schulberg, Stuart's daughter, who with Josh Waletzky has restored "Nuremberg." "She thought she was being arrested as a war criminal."

As Budd later recounted, he didn't immediately tell Riefenstahl otherwise. "He did have a warrant for her arrest as a material witness," Schulberg says, "and required her to help him in the editing room identifying people and footage."

The Riefenstahl encounter in many ways epitomizes the fascinating interplay between Hollywood and Washington that formed the context for the making of "Nuremberg," which was commissioned by the U.S. War Department and military government in Berlin to aid in the German denazification program during the years after World War II. The Schulberg brothers were scions of a storied movie family -- their father, B.P., headed Paramount Pictures in the 1920s and Budd would go on to write "On the Waterfront" -- and they worked for director John Ford, who headed the field photographic branch of the OSS, the intelligence-gathering precursor to the CIA.

The unit worked in the basement of the Department of Agriculture's South Building, Sandra Schulberg says. "That's where Budd and Stuart were headquartered throughout the war, making secret training films for OSS operatives who were infiltrating enemy lines in Europe." (Stuart Schulberg died in 1979; Budd died last year, at the age of 95.)

Although the "today" in "Nuremberg's" subtitle referred to the 1940s, it imparts just as timely and valuable insights for contemporary times -- as a record of the trial that introduced such concepts as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity to the general public, and also as a demonstration of how economic insecurity, tribal mistrust and demagoguery can destroy an otherwise civilized society.

"Nuremberg," which in its restored version is narrated by Liev Schreiber, includes material filmed at the trial of 22 defendants -- including Albert Speer, Hermann Goering and Joachim von Ribbentrop -- as well as scenes from the evidentiary films the Schulberg brothers created, one about the history of Nazism, the other a graphic one-hour film documenting the atrocities in the concentration camps.

Because much of that footage was culled from the Nazis' own propaganda films and newsreels, many of their images will be familiar to American viewers. But a few scenes might be unfamiliar and manage to shock with full and fresh force more than 60 years later. In one ghastly sequence, a group of emaciated people is trundled into a building where holes have been cut to accommodate an exhaust pipe leading from a van. The scene, filmed in Mogilev, Belarus, in 1941, documents a ghoulish precursor of what would become a rationalized system of mass murder in the extermination camps. Schulberg says her father found the footage in the apartment of an SS agent in Berlin.

"It's one of few documentations of the gassing that was shot by a German and that comes from a German source," she says. "There was no doubt much, much more, but we also think much was destroyed."

Her father and uncle became convinced that at least one of the two German editors they employed was tipping people off about their project. "They found two large caches of film still burning when they got to them," she says. But they nonetheless managed to assemble extraordinarily powerful films that, when they were presented at the Nuremberg trial, represented one of the first times film was ever used as evidence.

As for the trial itself, Stuart Schulberg had access to only 25 hours' worth of film that had been shot during the nearly year-long proceeding. "Nuremberg" highlights the indictments presented against the defendants -- conspiracy to commit a crime against peace, waging wars of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity -- each brought by a prosecutor representing one of the four Allied forces. While the defendants sit uncomfortably in the dock, many of them wearing sunglasses against the glare of the movie lights, the trial reminds viewers that such concepts have not been around all that long, and indeed have yet to be embraced by every nation. (The United States, for example, has yet to ratify the International Criminal Court, which itself was established after Nuremberg.)

As if the adventure and spycraft that informed the making of "Nuremberg" weren't intriguing enough, the film enjoyed a provocatively mysterious fate once it was made. Although it was shown throughout Germany as planned in 1948 and 1949 (the U.S. military government dispatched soldiers to ride on buses after screenings to eavesdrop, thinking they would get more candid reactions that way), "Nuremberg" was never released in the United States, for reasons that still can't be determined.

The films that Stuart Schulberg went on to make for the Marshall Plan couldn't be shown here because of laws preventing the government from propagandizing its own citizens. But Sandra Schulberg says there's no evidence that "Nuremberg" was censored for that reason. She speculates that the government may not have wanted to highlight German crimes when trying to gain popular support for rebuilding the country, or that the United States wanted to switch the nation's focus to the threat of Soviet communism.

Now that "Nuremberg" can finally be seen on these shores, she says, "I hope Americans will see it in the context of today. Not to focus so much on what the Nazis did, but what Americans can do to support the International Criminal Court and eventually put pressure on the Senate to ratify it." Noting that Germany did not join the coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, she adds, "Germany has learned the lessons of Nuremberg better than anyone. They really have taken the Nuremberg Principles to heart."

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today


(80 minutes, in English, German, French and Russian, with subtitles, at the Avalon) is not rated. It contains disturbing images and nudity associated with the Holocaust and World War II.

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