Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (Jeff Lipsky, NR)

film nuremerg smDirector Stuart Schulberg skillfully combines trial materials with other footage from the war to illustrate the extent of the crimes of which the defendants were accused.

film nuremerg lg

We’re so familiar these days with the concept of international tribunals and prosecutions for war crimes that it’s worth remembering neither concept existed in any meaningful fashion until the middle of the last century. The Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946 were the first major international attempt to hold the leaders of a defeated nation responsible for their actions. In the first trial, known as the International Military Tribunal, 24 high-ranking Nazis, including Martin Bormann, Hermann Göring, and Julius Streicher, were tried on charges including conspiracy for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg Trials were real trials with judges and prosecuting and defense attorneys; some of the accused were acquitted or sentenced to imprisonment, while others received the death penalty. Independent of the importance of the individual cases on trial, the Nuremberg Trials were influential in the development of international criminal law, and their influence can be seen in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations in 1948) and the treaties of the Geneva Convention.

The Nuremberg Trials were recorded on audiotape and partially captured on film, as well, and those materials form much of the raw material used in Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, a documentary funded by the U.S. government and shown in Germany in 1948-1949. Director Stuart Schulberg, a veteran of John Ford’s OSS Field Photographic Branch, skillfully combines trial materials with other footage from the war, including book-burning bonfires and many shots of emaciated concentration camp prisoners (both alive and dead), to illustrate the extent of the crimes of which the defendants were accused.

There’s nothing artistic about Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, which displays none of the creative genius of contemporary documentarians such as Humphrey Jennings or Leni Riefenstahl; instead, the film seems to take pride in being a blunt expression of outrage against the almost unimaginable evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime. The film’s power comes from the enormity of the crimes portrayed, and it’s always worth preserving documents such as this, lest we forget just how evil people can be.

Originally, there were plans to release Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today in the United States but that never happened, so this restored version is the first chance most Americans will have to see it. The released version was created from a “lavender print” (a fine-grain positive print) held in the German Bundesarchiv, and the restoration was overseen by Sandra Schulberg (daughter of Stuart Schulberg) and Josh Waletzky. It looks and sounds passably well for an old film, with the state of individual sections ranging from excellent to quite deteriorated.

As a historical document, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today reflects the period and purpose for which it was created, and it was certainly an important film in its time. From a remove of over 50 years, however, it’s hard not to wish for more. As a piece of propaganda, the film makes no mention of ethical issues which don’t fit its simple and straightforward narrative. The most obvious issue is the one-sided nature of the trials. Joseph Stalin, a U.S. ally, could just as well have been on the block as any of the Nazis, and many believe those involved with dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have stood trial for crimes against humanity, as well. The key point in both cases is the suspicion that the individuals in question were protected because of the side they fought for. These are serious criticisms, because the Nuremberg Trials claimed to appeal to universal principles of ethics, rather than serving as retribution against the defeated.

Other issues that deserve consideration include why the film was suppressed in the United States and Russia, and broader criticisms of the Nuremberg Trials themselves. The result is that Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today may serve as a fascinating starting point for ethical and historical discussions of the conduct of war, but as a freestanding film it’s a bit disappointing. | Sarah Boslaugh

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