Restored 'Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today' is potent reminder of infamous crimes

Sandra Schulberg has restored her father's 1948 documentary, now playing at the Charles

March 24, 2011

Stuart Schulberg's "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" brilliantly documents the first Nuremberg trial of Nazi officials — known as "The Trial of the Major War Criminals" — conducted by the International Military Tribunal from Nov. 20, 1945, to Oct. 1, 1946.

This film was a crucial component in the Allies' campaign to de-Nazify postwar Germany. But it didn't receive a U.S. theatrical engagement until last fall, when New York's Film Forum hosted the restoration created by Schulberg's daughter, Sandra, and Josh Waletzky.

The Charles, which opened "Nuremberg" last week, is holding the film over for another week. This engagement provides Baltimore moviegoers with an extraordinary opportunity to witness a vital and harrowing piece of history.

What caused the six-decade delay from the film's completion to its American premiere?

Stuart Schulberg made the film for the U.S. War Department. By the time he completed it, in 1948, America's priorities had shifted. Government authorities believed that a lucid, devastating analysis of the Third Reich's crimes and atrocities would undercut popular support for the Marshall Plan, the bold "European Recovery Program" that started rebuilding Germany and all of Western Europe in April 1948. American leaders were also eager for U.S. citizens to see West Germany as an ally against their new Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.

They shouldn't have been so calculating or so squeamish. "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" specifically focuses on the men who turned "just following orders" into a rule of state. It highlights the suffering of common people throughout Europe. Most important, its swift, surgical treatment of the persecution and annihilation of European Jewry has a concentrated potency that never veers into what some critics have dubbed "Holocaust porn."

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week, Sandra Schulberg noted that the section about the Shoah "comes relatively late in the film … but it's extremely powerful. Some images are awful but familiar; some have been buried for 60 years. While Stuart was editing the film in Berlin, he found footage that belonged to a Nazi officer, Artur Nebe, of emaciated, naked people in Mogilev [then in Poland, now Belarus], in September 1941. They were being taken off an open flatbed truck and led into a small building. Hoses, piping, were connecting the exhaust of a running car into the building. It was the first Nazi film of an atrocity being recorded at the same time it was being committed. We're seeing part of the experimentation that led to mobile gas vans and then to the creation of the gas chambers."

Schulberg said that subtitle of "Nuremberg" — "its lesson for today" — has grown in meaning. Some people, after the film, only "want to know if there are any Nazis left today who need to be prosecuted. I try to lead them back to the present." In part, she wants American audiences to reflect on the U.S. government's reluctance to prosecute war crimes today.

Michael Sragow

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