Nuremberg trials on film — what a jarring ride

What might be the single most important film about Nazi crimes was commissioned in 1946 by the U.S. War Department — which then turned around and suppressed it, making sure it was never seen by American audiences.

I saw it last week in Berkeley. Rather, I saw a 2009 restoration of  “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” created by a three-person team headed by Sandra Schulberg, daughter of Stuart Schulberg, who directed the 1948 original.

A powerful depiction of the Allied Powers’ groundbreaking trial of the top Nazi leadership by an international military tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, the film screened at a two-day conference organized by the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies and the Center for Jewish Studies at U.C. Berkeley.

When the lights dimmed in the Magnes auditorium, I wasn’t prepared for the impact those images, those people, those places could still have, after the voluminous corpus of films, books, lectures and other research on the Holocaust that has been produced in the 70 years since. After all, this was a War Department film, meant to show the world what the trial, from November 1945 to October 1946, itself established: a new kind of crime, one that crossed borders and employed mechanisms of hitherto unimaginable proportion, demanding a new code of justice that went beyond the rules and norms of individual states. Instead of executing the conquered foes, the Allies formed an international panel of justices and tried major Nazi leaders according to a law that didn’t yet exist, which would become international human rights law.

And this film shows it happening, unfiltered by later understanding. Right away, as the film opens, we see 21 top Nazis sitting in a courtroom as their crimes are paraded before them. We hear these men — Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Julius Streicher, Alfred Jodl — speak in their own voices. Not one apologized. Not one owned up to knowing about the Holocaust. It was all Hitler, they said, and maybe Joseph Goebbels. This after the prosecution, in a revolutionary legal procedure, used the Nazis’ careful documentation of their own crimes as evidence against them, showing in the courtroom Nazi clips of extermination camps, of medical experiments, of early attempts at gassing insane prisoners as a run-up to the Final Solution.

“I had not the slightest idea this thing would take on such proportions,” an affronted Göring insists.

Something else stood out for me, beyond the raw power of hearing these Nazis literally talk themselves to death: There was precious little mention of Jews, something that would be unthinkable in a film about Nazis today. Hanna Yablonka, a Holocaust studies professor at Ben-Gurion University, told me she “was looking at her watch, counting the minutes until the word ‘Jew’ was mentioned — 45!” She didn’t blame the filmmakers, she said. The war had just ended, and there was very little understanding of the enormity of the Holocaust, not to mention how meticulously it had been planned. That narrative was developed later, in 1961 at the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.

So why was this important film never shown in America? When the government commissioned it in 1946, the Soviet Union was our ally, but by 1948-49 the Cold War was beginning and a staunchly anti-communist State Department was not eager to show us working together with the Soviets to prosecute anyone, even Nazis. They also wanted to shore up domestic support for the Marshall Plan, which involved sending U.S. dollars to rebuild Germany.

But the restored version of the film is accomplishing something incredible. Schulberg and her team have shown it at a human rights convention in Tehran; to a group of police cadets in Hanoi; and in Italy, to a group of 40 Bahraini judges and police officers (they saw an Arabic-language version). The Bahrainis, she said, “were very moved.” One of the judges told her that until she saw this film, she “idolized Hitler.” A Vietnamese police cadet said the film forced her to reassess her opinion of Americans.

“I thought you were all corrupt and immoral,” the woman told Schulberg.

So, seven decades later, this creaky black-and-white documentary still has the power to educate — those who know something and, more important, those who know nothing.

For information on the film, visit www.nurembergfilm.org.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.