Lesson for Today

The restoration of a documentary about the Nuremberg Trials – 63 years after it was filmed


Writer-director Stuart Schulberg at Nuremberg's 1948 premiere in Stuttgart, Germany. Courtesy: Schulberg Family Archive.

Writer-director Stuart Schulberg at Nuremberg's 1948 premiere in Stuttgart, Germany. Courtesy: Schulberg Family Archive.

It is part court TV, part spy story. The first trial ever committed to celluloid has now garnered beneficent reviews. It only took 63 years.

Filmed in Nuremberg during the Trial of Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal from November 1945 to October 1946, produced in Berlin, briefly screened and then promptly forgotten for over a half century, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948/2009) was accorded the status of a Berlinale Special at this year’s International Film Festival in the German capital. The documentary splices courtroom footage with that made by concentration-camp liberators and film confiscated from the Nazis – damning evidence that was introduced on the eighth and 17th days of trial. In 1945, three million metres of German film had been unearthed throughout the summer and autumn by a Jewish lieutenant, Budd Schulberg; his father had been head of Paramount Pictures, his brother, Stuart, a director was also involved in the search for Nazi footage. Budd would later become a scriptwriter: he wrote On the Waterfront (1954). In 1941, his first book, What Makes Sammy Run?, was published; it’s a highly critical treatment of Hollywood that, in the years following the war, became a best-seller in America.

During the war, Budd served in the American Navy and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime progenitor of the CIA. With Stuart, who directed Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, he was a member of director John Ford’s Field Photographic Branch. He died last August, aged 95.

Directing the search for canisters of Nazi footage of atrocities (shown during the trial in the 1945 documentary, The Nazi Plan, which Budd wrote and from which Stuart’s film draws), Budd chanced on two prisoners of war who, it seemed, had served as film editors within the SS, Kurt von Molo and Water Rode. (Budd revealed this fact in 2001, to interviewer Kurt Vonnegut.) The two prisoners informed Schulberg of the locations of these films (formerly called desserts as Joseph Goebbels had been in habit of screening them for guests after dinner). At least twice, by the time Budd arrived, he discovered the celluloid burning – the Nazis, despite their defeat, still had their moles.

After the war, it also fell to Budd to travel in an open-top Jeep, unarmed and accompanied only by his driver, to Kitzbühel, Austria, to apprehend Leni Riefenstahl at her chalet. He had with him a warrant naming her as a material witness, compelling her assistance in his editing room to identify Nazi personages in the films he had unearthed – some by her. (Riefenstahl did not know that in 1938 Schulberg had played a small role in organizing the boycott of her visit to Hollywood.)

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was given its premiere in Stuttgart in November 1948; it then toured the country as part of the programme of de-Nazification, but was soon suppressed by the very American Department of War which had superintended its creation – Washington, it seems, feared its distribution stateside would imperil public support for German reconstruction through the Marshall Plan. Recently, however, a 35mm pictorial and sound restoration was produced by a collaboration between Josh Waletzky and Stuart Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra Schulberg – an independent film producer.

Peter Stein of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival said that Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today reminded him how powerful the images were that the first postwar audiences were required to ingest about the German exterminations. Fascinatingly, the film is the earliest record of how filmmakers began to create a narrative of the Holocaust, with imagery that has ‘now become familiar to us as archival film’. Given the plethora of feature films about the Nazis, seeing the real ones in the dock comes as some surprise. (Gazing on them gathered in court, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarked, ‘Who’d have thought that we were fighting this war against a bunch of jerks?’) Among the rest of the cast, the American prosecutor Robert Jackson’s performance has not aged well – a country lawyer and crony of Franklin D. Roosevelt he fumbled his cross-examination of wily Hermann Göring. Against his crusading oratory and grandstanding to keep the bulk of prosecution in American hands, British Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross’s method was to concentrate on expounding international treaty law.

On the eve of the trial, a prosecutor, Sidney J. Kaplan, wrote to his wife that he awaited ‘the second most important trial in the history of the world (No. 1: the trial of Jesus Christ).’ Twenty-five hours were filmed and the rest was recorded on audio; however, 35mm film of 1945 vintage is shot on ten-minute reels, which often break off mid-sentence. Cameras and sound recordings were never synchronized, so even where there exists footage of the courtroom participants (taken from one of the three camera positions), the sound does not match it, necessitating remastering soundtracks. ‘Almost as soon as we saw the footage my executive producer and I said, “We know why no one has ever done this before – because it’s too hard with this footage!”’ explained Anne Dorfman, who produced an earlier 1996 compilation for Court TV, drawing on Nuremberg footage from the American National Archive vaults. Though it took five years, this restoration replaces an earlier voice-over narration during the trial sequences with sound recordings of the proceedings – greatly heightening those sequences’ immediacy, authenticity and impact.

World War II was, through to its last judicial mopping up, the filmed war, in the way Vietnam would be the televized one. Noël Coward downed his cigarette holder to direct and star in In Which We Serve (1942), alongside the allegorical Casablanca (1942) – the film that led Umberto Eco to comment: ‘Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.’ Budd Schulberg noted two copies of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) when he took charge of Hitler’s personal collection and one diary entry by Joseph Goebbels from 1937 read: ‘I have given 12 Mickey Mouse movies as a present for the Führer at Christmas! He seems pleased about it.’

The ghost of Riefenstahl is very much with us today, as a new Olympic stadium is undergoing construction in London. (It was she, not the Greeks, who devised the Olympic torch-relay, precisely for its cinematic uses in 1936.) She also haunts Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), whose theme, if it has one, is the entangling of film with Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl regarded Budd as her lifelong chief antagonist (and for a while; she died at 101). He referred to her in the Saturday Evening Post, shortly after the war, as the ‘Nazi pin-up girl’; it was only half an insult. In an interview in 2004, he said when they met, ‘she was still very beautiful, and if you could forget her connections, very charming.’ He called Triumph of the Will (1935) ‘worth two divisions of the Wehrmacht’.

Riefenstahl’s film was crafted in Nuremberg 12 years before Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, in the Nazi Party Congress – before the Reichstag passed the racial laws which took their name from the city. Then, Nuremberg represented the link between Germany’s Gothic past and its Nazi future; Riefenstahl’s 30 film cameras and 120 technicians evoked the mysticism and religious fervour of a red-letter day surrounding a Gothic cathedral. As with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) or D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Riefenstahl’s film raises the question: why is it that the worse the regime, the better the propaganda? Triumph of the Will, for all its sinister content, is compelling; sitting through one minute of ‘Why We Fight’, the series of seven propaganda films directed by Frank Capra and commissioned by the US government during World War II, on the other hand, is one minute too many.

The answer, of course, involves fascism’s greater dependence on disguise. Beneath Riefenstahl’s perfect human columns lay not a Reich administration of mythic German efficiency; rather, squabbling incompetents surmounting inefficient bureaucracies, driven for those 12 years to outdo one another in supporting their Führer’s aggressive wars and vicious domestic anti-Semitism. The eloquence of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today rises into a rare space of artful democratic propaganda. Finally, 63 years after its release, it is possible to watch it.

Pádraig Belton is a journalist based in London, UK.

Issue 131

First published in Issue 131

May 2010

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