Justice Robert H. Jackson of the Supreme Court, the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials
The Nuremberg war crimes trials began in November 1945, six months after Germany’s defeat, on a continent still strewn with rubble and awash in displaced persons. The American military had commissioned Stuart Schulberg (brother of Budd) to make a documentary of the proceedings, believing that a visual record of Nazi crimes and of the legal process that would bring the perpetrators to justice was a crucial element to the reassertion of law and decency where barbarism had recently governed. The truth of what had been done by the defeated German regime and the fairness with which it was being addressed by the victorious powers needed to be shared with the world.
A fragment of Mr. Schulberg’s work arrives, belatedly and truncated, with “Nuremberg,” an assemblage of surviving footage that gains some power from its piecemeal state. The United States government never released his documentary (though it did later adapt some of his materials into a film called “Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today”), and the negative and soundtrack were lost or destroyed. Sandra Schulberg, the filmmaker’s daughter, and Josh Waletzky have now turned the surviving materials into something haunting and vivid — a version of the original that is also, implicitly, a record of its partial vanishing.
This “Nuremberg” does not exactly reveal anything new. Later trials of lesser officials inspired Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), a good, long feature with an all-star cast and a sober respect for history. And the Holocaust has been the subject of countless films of all kinds, especially in recent years, as the first-hand memory of survivors has begun to fade, and the children and grandchildren of both victims and perpetrators take up the burden of interpreting painful history. The shocking revelations that appear in Schulberg’s film are now well known.
But there is a raw immediacy in “Nuremberg” that nearly closes the gap between past and present. You don’t necessarily see images of slaughter and cruelty for the first time, but you grasp some of what it must have been like to do so — to uncover clips showing what most human beings up until then could never have imagined.
You also appreciate the systematic, scrupulous nature of the trials themselves, which combined legalistic punctiliousness with deep moral passion. The guiding spirit of the Nuremberg trials is worth recalling now, in the midst of the continuing argument about how to deal properly with enemies who show nothing but contempt for the norms of liberal society. The Nuremberg answer was to hold onto those norms with a special tenacity, to afford the accused precisely the acknowledgment of humanity that they had denied their victims. That they were allowed to defend themselves also meant that they had, in front of the world, to choose whether to admit their depravity, lie about it or try to justify it.
The roughness of the document takes some getting used to. There are large gaps in the record, and much of the sound is unsynchronized. Narration read by Liev Schreiber gives the film coherence and drama, but most of that comes from the images themselves.
Courtroom scenes — of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and others in the dock, listening on headphones as their deeds are enumerated and explained; of American, British, French and Soviet prosecutors explicating recent history; of defense lawyers and defendants trying to explain it away — alternate with footage, some taken from Nazi archives, of horrors that still boggle the mind. Emaciated bodies, mass graves, medical experiments — you may think these pictures are familiar, but they arrive with the sickening shock of discovery, and with the anguished question that must have been on many minds in 1945: how did this happen?
The question still awaits an answer, but “Nuremberg” shows that the essential nature of the Nazi regime was never in doubt: the arrogance, the dishonesty, the matter-of-fact embrace of evil. The excuses and second thoughts offered by some of the masterminds of genocide and conquest seem almost grotesquely comical. They wish they had said more, or known more, and they cast blame on the conveniently dead Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels for leading them and the rest of Germany so badly astray.
The verdicts and sentences, read out at the end, are almost anticlimactic, though if your 20th-century history is a little rusty, there is a bit of suspense and surprise. Some of the defendants in the first round of trials were executed, some imprisoned, and a few were acquitted. It may not have been enough — what could have been? — but what this documentary shows, from an unmediated, eyewitness perspective, is how a vital and indispensable principle of humanity was restored.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Original 1948 film written and directed by Stuart Schulberg; edited by Joseph Zigman; music by Hans-Otto Borgmann; produced by Mr. Schulberg and Pare Lorentz. The 2009 restoration created by Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky; narrated by Liev Schreiber; music reconstructed by John Califra; released by Schulberg Productions and Metropolis Productions. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In English and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes. This film is not rated.