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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind
by Donald Levit

Based on a Playhouse 90 program, Judgment at Nuremberg informed most people’s knowledge of the 1945-46 happenings by boiling the series of trials down to a composite one with four former German judges as accused. Amazingly, that Abby Mann dramatization was predated by thirteen years by Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, a documentary record directed, written and coproduced by Sergeant Stuart Schulberg that, restored by his daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky, at last gets its American première at the New York Film Festival the evening before a one-week theatrical run.

The diplomatic and military Cold War manipulation that buried her father’s film in 1949 remains murky to Ms. Schulberg, who advanced informed guesses and hard facts at the press Q&A, where she shared stage with Auschwitz survivor and German press trial reporter Ernest Michel and with Stephen J. Rapp, President Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. Indeed, she believes that an impetus for exhibiting the restoration -- the original is in the public domain but its negatives long destroyed -- is that “it is a great anti-war film” and that that first trial, of twenty-three (plus Martin Bormann in absentia) Major War Criminals, is the template for the current International Criminal Courts system whose hundred-thirteen signee nations do not include the United States.

Only twenty-five hours of the eleven-month process at the Palace of Justice were allowed to be recorded by cameras. Russian photojournalists grew so exasperated with U.S./U.K./French restrictions that they did their own “fascinating” version, with emphasis on Soviet losses and, subtitled, only recently available here. Also brought up were The Nazi Plan, projected in the courtroom during actual proceedings, and Nazi Concentration Camps, done by the British and Americans who liberated them.

Audio had to be recreated or recalibrated, with original German, Russian and French set back in with subtitles and, with a “reconstructed score,” the whole unified through unobtrusive “re-recorded” English narration by Liev Schreiber.

Outside the trial per se is archival footage from the Reichstag fire to the cessation of hostilities and the numbed aftermath in Europe’s rubble. Mass rallies and goose-stepping, bombardments and barbarities, have not lost their emotional power, but there are a lot of them in an eighty-minute record directed to the trials themselves. One arguable reason for their presence is the inclusion of Hitler’s many dated assurances of the limits of German intentions, made immediately ironic by this visual proof of the emptiness of such words. Since at the end defendants were permitted each to summarize his own particular extenuation -- filming their faces was forbidden when the four jurors and four alternates’ verdicts were read -- perhaps this is underlining for those who pleaded that the Führer had broken his promises to them as individuals as well as to the entire nation.

For this International Military Tribunal, “defendants were given adequate [German] defense lawyers,” while the four prosecutors each came from one of the principal Allies. Among them was America’s Robert H. Jackson, who, when denied Army permission to show this film at least privately to the Bar Association, screened the Soviet version.

Jackson was among those instrumental in rationing Schulberg’s time, perhaps from fears that filming would take over or impede the wheels of justice, turning it all into the type of media circus that has since become so common. The prosecution program was to damn the Nazis with their own written words, as thousands upon thousands of document pages were brought in, read and analyzed. Of course, pure paperwork cannot be the stuff of this, or any, film.

Appropriately included or not, many of the graphic visuals are hard to watch, and the seemingly calm, banal architects of National Socialism are repulsive in their dock. That civilians and military are responsible as individuals -- as opposed to what Schreiber points out as the Nazi credo of cogs in a hierarchy up to Hitler -- was and is essential to the concept of those tribunals and of others since.

Like recent A Film Unfinished, Nuremberg again opens the can of worms that is the “atrocity film.” Schulberg mentioned a letter received from the head of a major Hollywood studio, asking how such fare “can be shown to the public as entertainment.”

(Schulberg Productions and Metropolis Productions; not rated by MPAA.)

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