The documentary, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” offers many powerful lessons, but two leap out right away.
One is that man’s inhumanity to man has no limit. In prosecuting 22 Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the unthinkable was shown to be well within the grasp of
both depraved and ordinary people.
The second lesson, as though we needed more proof, is that the motion picture has no equal when it comes to furnishing evidence. Pictures can sometimes lie, but not on this scale or at this frequency.
As you watch the footage from the Nuremberg trials, a dominant sight in the courtroom is a giant movie screen. The people in the room watched the proof taken by film cameras, and saw with their own eyes the enormity of the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime.
We see that footage while watching this documentary, too. Originally prepared in the late 1940s and shown in Europe (but not America), “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” was actually a lost film for a while, and the movie now in release is a re-construction of it.
It combines footage from the trial with the archival footage of the horrors. The prisoners, including Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, sit in the defendants’ dock, listening to the prosecutors from the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
Although the footage of atrocities retains its power to shock and horrify, the actual trial footage contained here could easily have been longer. At 80 minutes, the film leaves you curious about seeing more testimony.
This film was originally assembled by Stuart and Budd Schulberg, whose father had been an executive at Paramount Pictures (Budd would go on to write “On the Waterfront”). They used film shot by Allied photographers as well as actual Nazi documentary footage from the war.
It is not known why the movie was never shown in the United States, although it’s possible that no reminders were wanted of America’s wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.
Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg, was part of the team that re-constructed the movie for its current release. It is newly narrated by Liev Schreiber, whose even-keeled recitation of the facts is just exactly right for the material.
When, at the end of the trial, Schreiber patiently reads out every charge and every verdict (“Crimes against peace … crimes against humanity … guilty, death by hanging”), the effect is like hearing the gears of justice grind to their conclusion.
There’s a tendency for people to forget history, or to remember the attractive parts and delete the uncomfortable stuff so that it suits their ideological viewpoint. Movies such as this stand in the way of that selective memory.
“Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” ½
A reconstructed documentary, originally made in the late 1940s, about the Nuremberg trials. Both the trial footage (one wishes there were more of it) and the films of Nazi atrocities have the power to shock, even a half-century after the events.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for subject matter