‘Nuremberg’ documentary movingly details Nazi war crimes trials

Image from “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today.”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1948, the United States government produced a documentary about the Nuremberg war crimes trials to be shown to the German people as part of the de-Nazification effort. But the film, which movingly details the international effort to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, was released in this country.

Now, a new restoration of this astounding landmark documentary, a beautiful black-and-white film with polished Hollywood production values, is finally having a theatrical release in the U.S.

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“Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” contains the only footage of the trial itself, as well as details on how the prosecutors built their case against the Nazis. Skillful editing used excerpts from Nazi films, footage of their atrocities and victims or filmed glimpses of bombed-out cities to movingly underscore the prosecutors’ testimony of Nazi war crimes.

Film producer Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky restored the 1948 film, now narrated by Liev Schreiber.

Schulberg, who is also the daughter of the documentary’s filmmaker Stuart Schulberg, will be in town for the opening. She will introduce it at the evening screenings and conduct question-and-answer sessions afterward.

Stuart Schulberg wrote and directed the film, commissioned by Pare Lorentz, head of Film, Theatre & Music at the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division. The writer/director had been part of Hollywood director John Ford’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Field Photographic Branch/War Crimes Unit. That unit helped gather Nazi film evidence to be shown in the courtroom at Nuremberg.

The film’s subtitle, which was used for the original film, still applies today. This powerful documentary allows us to see the trial that established the principles of international criminal justice still used today. The film offers a fascinating glimpse back at a pivotal historical moment but also is compelling look at the world coming together to establish a tradition of rule of law against war criminals rather than summary executions of Nazi leaders.

Sandra Schulberg’s uncle, the acclaimed novelist Budd Schulberg, also worked on John Ford’s war film team and had helped assemble some of that Nazi footage but was not a direct part of this documentary.

Not a single frame of the original film was lost in the restoration. Although the original negative was in poor condition and missing its soundtrack, Schulberg and Waletzky were able to find a good print, which was used to create a new negative. They used the print’s soundtrack as a guide for the restoration, only adding a few first names for clarity for modern audiences in Schreiber’s narration.

Schulberg has been to St. Louis before, when she interviewed Nuremberg prosecutor Whitney Harris. A well-respected philanthropist and attorney who donated to both Washington University and University of Missouri-St. Louis for a number of fields, Harris passed away in 2010. His name remains on the Whitney Harris World Ecology Center, a collaboration of UMSL, the St. Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden.