Monday, September 27, 2010

NUREMBERG -- the original -- is seen thea-trically at last via the NYFF and Film Forum

How is it, asks the press materials for NUREMBERG -- the honest-to-god, you-are-there documentary film originally made by Stuart Shulberg, of some of the proceedings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, from November 20, 1945, through October 1, 1946 -- that the Allies' own film of what is arguably the greatest courtroom event of all time never played in U.S. theaters?  Good question. If you'll permit, TrustMovies would suggest an answer.

Just after World War II, the U.S. government actually suppressed this film, for reasons and motives that have been argued about since then. Were the American people too pristine, too innocent to be shown material such as this -- "this" being not so much the war itself but the Nazis genocide against the Jews, as was bandied about at the time. (If we were too innocent, or too dumb, to be shown it then, are we, as a nation, any more "adult" now?) I suspect that perhaps some American Jews in high places, not the least of these, the Hollywood moguls, went along with this charade because it was thought that too much attention called toward this event might result in some sort of backlash. This is understandable, as most societies throughout history have been guilty of anti-Semitism. So let it be. The war was over and the bad guys brought to justice -- some of them, anyway. We know now that this was hardly true of all high-level Nazis, as the US government cherry-picked a number of former Nazis it thought might prove useful -- such as Klaus Barbie, shown above (see My Enemy's Enemy) -- and immediately helped them out of post-WWII-Germany and on their way to a more "productive life."

The Holocaust, however, was not the sort of thing that could be kept under wraps. Soon after WWII, and continuing through today, one after another of stories, letters, photographs, books (novels and non-fiction), films (documentary and narrative) began appearing, from country after country, until much of this history had been told. All of it will never be. (And if Holocaust deniers have their way, the world will eventually forget about the whole thing.)  By this point in time, so much has been seen on this subject (such as the Jewish children used in Nazi medical experiments, shown above, but not from the film Nuremberg) that I would guess that this actual and original Nuremberg documentary, which shows us a minimal amount of film on the trial in any case (only 25 hours of footage was shot over nearly one year's time), would have seemed rather "tame" to any distributor considering it for theatrical showing over the past couple of decades. Just so would it have seemed to most paying audiences, who have now been drenched in horror, both real and imagined, by the documentary and narrative films of this same time period. Yet this trial, which was the first to prosecute "crimes against humanity," would become the touchstone for all further genocide prosecutions.

Timing is often all-important, and the time to have gotten Nuremberg out to the public was immedi-ately post WWII, or as soon after this as possible. Indeed, the movie -- as filmed originally by Stuart Schulberg (that's he, at far left, with his brother, the more famous American writer Budd Schulberg) -- is indeed quite "tame." It shows us the prosecution displaying surprising tact and civility in the handling of the Nazi war criminals, as well as the defendants and their ridiculous references to "certain excesses" that might have gone on, or the fact that they had no knowledge of what was happening to the Jews. This by now will seem standard stuff to those of us who've viewed countless Holocaust dramas and documentaries. Does this mean that audiences should not bother to see the film? Hardly. This is history, and a welcome addition to the already chock-full oeuvre it is.

The restoration of the original film has been done by the filmmaker's daughter Sandra Schulberg, together with Josh Waletzsky, and Ms Schulberg (shown at right) appeared at the press screening to explain certain parts of the movie to us, especially why it features no voice-synchronized sound to go with the visuals.  Instead, actor Liev Schreiber narrates the film in his excellent tenor voice, which sounds quite true to the time period of the late 1940s.

What struck me as most interesting about the film was the way in which Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief U.S. Prosecutor at the trial (shown above, center, speaking), lays out as succinctly and understandably as I have ever heard or read how Hitler's war on the world came directly from his own book Mein Kampf, and then how the man, his generals and his army invaded country upon country, after giving each one assurances of peace and no interest in taking over its territory. Hitler's crimes against humanity are horrible enough, but this clear explanation of the manner in which he laid waste to eastern and western Europe is striking enough to turn history into something lean, immediate and ferocious.

Other scenes also stand out -- an aerial view of a (for-a-brief-time) conquered Russian army, made to live outdoors in the winter with no shelter. As the film proceeds, if the trial begins to sound a bit pompous, I guess the speech-ifying Allies were entitled to their moment in the sun. The sentences for the various men convicted seem rather arbitrary, but better history buffs than I will understand why this one got life imprisonment, that one was hanged and the next was made only to serve a few years.

Nuremberg, after playing the New York Film Festival on Tuesday, September 28 at 6:15pm (sold out) then opens the following day at Film Forum for a one-week run. You can check Film Forum dates, times and ticket availability here. For further screenings throughout the country, click here.

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