Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today depicts the most famous courtroom drama in modern times, and the first to make extensive use of film as evidence. It was also the first trial to be extensively documented, aurally and visually. All of the proceedings, which lasted for nearly 11 months, were recorded. And though the trial was filmed while it was happening, strict limits were placed on the Army Signal Corps cameramen by the Office of Criminal Counsel. In the end, they were permitted to film only about 25 hours over the entire course of the trial. This was to prove a great impediment for writer/director Stuart Schulberg, and his editor Joseph Zigman, when they were engaged to make the official film about the trial, in 1946, shortly after its conclusion.
Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today follows the structure of the trial, using the four counts of the indictment as its organizing principle. While much of the film is set in the courtroom, Nuremberg reconstructs the prosecution’s case and rebuts the defendants’ assertions by relying on the Nazis’ own films. Nuremberg therefore cuts back and forth to these films.
The film opens with a woman emerging from a hole in the ground, carrying a naked infant. The surrounding landscape consists of mountains of rubble. A civilization has been destroyed but slowly, slowly, people nurture life again. A woman puts a plant on a windowsill; a man, with a little boy at his side, plays a violin. “How did it happen?” the narrator asks, “What were the forces?” And then the film cuts to the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, one of the few buildings still standing in the ruined city. U.S. Chief Prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, makes the opening statement:
“The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury, stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”
Nuremberg builds to its conclusion with the final summations of the four chief prosecutors, and the verdict of the panel of judges. Many people do not realize that three of the defendants were acquitted. Then it cuts to the prison, which was part of the Palace of Justice, and to exterior shots of the cells of those prisoners condemned to hang. The last shot of the film echoes a mysterious figure that we’ve glimpsed in front the courthouse, but that we could not make out. Now we see it is a statue of Jesus on the cross, emerging from the rubble. The final frames of the film carry Jackson’s parting words:
“This trial is part of the great effort to make the peace more secure. It constitutes juridical action of a kind to ensure that those who start a war will pay for it personally. Nuremberg stands as a warning to all those who plan and wage aggressive war.”
The Nuremberg trial represented a historic initiative to redeem Western civilization from the horror and degradation of the Holocaust, all the more remarkable because hatred and revenge were uppermost in the minds of most survivors of the carnage. It came about only because the Americans, with the benefit of slightly more remove than their European allies, argued vociferously for a proper, carefully-conducted trial as opposed to summary executions. In so doing, they ultimately helped heal the devastating divisions of war and seal the peace. The film documents an extraordinary example of civilized world citizenship, and it still has the capacity to inspire us today.
For Jews, the trial held, and still holds, a special significance. It served as the first acknowledgement that Jews had been Hitler’s primary victims.
Yet Holocaust deniers still exist and make news 60 years later, finding fertile ground. Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today recreates the incontrovertible proof that clinched the prosecution’s case; yet virtually no one has ever seen the film. For although the film was widely shown in Germany during 1948 and 1949, as part of the postwar campaign to denazify and re-educate German society, the very government officials who had paid for the film to be made got cold feet about showing it to American audiences.
The Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration comes at an opportune time, for the “Nuremberg principles” are now being applied around the world in an effort to prosecute crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.