Stuart Schulberg, a Jew working for the Hollywood director John Ford in the OSS film unit at the end of World War II, was given the mission of finding German-shot footage to be presented at the Nuremberg trial of the top surviving Nazi brass.
Speed was essential, as Germans with access to photographic evidence were wasting no time destroying it.
Although the Nazis’ vast trove of documents proved invaluable to Allied prosecutors, Schulberg’s compilation films — “Nazi Concentration Camps” and the four-and-a-half-hour “The Nazi Plan” — arguably had the greatest impact on the courtroom.
So Schulberg was assigned by the U.S. War Department to make the official film of the trial. His concise yet comprehensive work, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today,” was screened widely in Germany upon its completion in 1948.
But the film was quietly shelved in the United States, and forgotten. For the last five years, Sandra Schulberg, the filmmaker’s daughter and a veteran independent film producer, has devoted herself to giving “Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today” a second life.
“I had many doubts along the way because it was so hard to raise the money, and people didn’t respond to the obvious historical mandate that it should be restored and shown,” Schulberg said in a phone interview from her East Coast home.
This terrifically crisp, crackling and invaluable film opens Sept. 16 at the Loft Cinema.
“Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today” is ostensibly a record of the trial, and Schulberg and filmmaker Josh Waletsky went to great lengths to enhance the film by replacing some narration with original audio of Justice Robert H. Jackson and the British, French and Russian prosecutors, as well as defendants Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Albert Speer, and others.
“What surprises me,” Schulberg reports, “is that people who do know this material very well, who are experts on the cinematography of the Holocaust and who didn’t expect to learn anything from the film, had never heard the defendants speaking in the courtroom in response to cross-examination, or in their final summations, justifying or expressing recognition of what they’d done.”
In the course of depicting justice being served, the documentary does an exemplary job of using the trial to frame the egregious history of the Third Reich from its beginnings through the “Final Solution.”
“As we get further away, the vast majority doesn’t know the details” of World War II, Schulberg observes.
She was conceived in Berlin during the blockade and born in Paris. Her father continued to make and supervise films in Germany and France through the mid-’50s before returning to the United States and, eventually, signing on as TV newsman David Brinkley’s producer in Washington, D.C.
Schulberg hasn’t been able to unravel the mystery of why “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” didn’t screen in the United States. One theory is that with the Cold War on, the government wanted all eyes on the Russians.
It is tempting to see veiled anti-Semitism as the real reason, given the State Department’s heartless restrictions on the number of European Jews allowed into the United States in the 1930s and ’40s. In addition, recently declassified documents reveal U.S. efforts to camouflage or expunge the records of high-level Nazi figures — not scientists, mind you — and help them immigrate to this and other countries.
Schulberg won’t indulge in speculation, however.
“Regardless of whether there was a specific connection made between that policy of providing some refuge for some Nazis, the bigger-picture point was that the American government was trying to get the American people to focus on the Soviet threat and stop thinking about the Nazis,” she says.
Sandra Schulberg, “Nuremberg” restoration producer and co-creator, daughter of original “Nuremberg” writer/director Stuart Schulberg, will appear at a post-film Q & A on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Loft Cinema. This screening is co-hosted by The Tucson International Jewish Film Festival. For more information, visit loftcinema.com.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.