Message of “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today” still rings true
Prisoners march in rows. People eat from garbage cans. A Nazi soldier throws a body into a pit. American audiences were seeing these images for the first time. They were part of “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” a 62-year old documentary that transports viewers to a disturbing moment and place in history: the Nuremberg courtroom in 1945, with the Nazi war crimes trial unfolding before our eyes.
“Nuremberg” uses 25 hours of original footage from the war and its aftermath, including two films that the trial’s prosecutors presented as evidence. The familiar narrative from history books plays live on the screen. The prosecution first accuses the Nazis of attempting unjust war by attacking their former allies and then arrives at its most chilling accusations: war crimes and crimes against humanity—in other words, the Holocaust. As they defend themselves, Nazi leaders’ voices are loud and clear and the footage is raw.
The movie, which first came out in Stuttgart in 1948, was supposed to premiere in America shortly thereafter. Commissioned by the United States War Department to show that Nazi leaders were given a fair trial—and to illustrate the consequences of their actions—“Nuremberg” would explain how America had brought justice to the world.
But by the time the film was ready to cross the Atlantic, says Sandra Schulberg—director Stuart Schulberg’s daughter—America was no longer Germany’s enemy and the United States government did not want Americans to perceive Germany as an adversary. Following the outbreak of the Cold War, the US instead preferred its citizens to demonize the Soviet Union, which appears as an ally in the film—with Soviet soldiers sitting next to Americans on the bench. Now, 20 years after the fall of the USSR, Sandra Schulberg has finally restored the movie for North American release, working with film editor Josh Waletsky to reconstruct the soundtrack and bring the movie into the 21st century.
A decades-long delay has not dulled the film’s capacity to shock its audience and live up to its subtitle, “Its Lesson for Today.” “Nuremberg” opens with a woman emerging from a hole into a destroyed landscape: Europe is in ruins. The camera then moves to the courthouse for what Robert Jackson, the chief American judge, calls “the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world.” He praises the decision to subject the Nazis to trial as “one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”
The film seeks to prove that reconstruction necessitates justice. Jackson ends the movie by declaring, “Nuremberg stands as a warning to all those who plan and wage aggressive war.”
This documentary is a needed addition to the catalog of Holocaust films. It provides detailed and gripping documentation of the atrocities that the Nazis committed and of their trials. The footage feels immediate, allowing the viewer to live through the moments, and speaks to the generations born after the war—an exhortation to fight against present genocides and crimes against humanity. “Nuremberg” displays how animalistic civilization can become, but also shows the power of justice.
The movie closes with the camera shifting from the courtroom to a crucifixion. The statue is not there to Christianize an essentially Jewish tragedy but rather to pay credence to the better side of our nature. Throughout the war, unspeakable crimes shook the Judeo-Christian ethics that had served as the foundation of our society. “Nuremberg” has rich historical significance as both a document of the trial and as a raw account of Nazi atrocities, but most important is that it shows how we reclaimed those values.
This article has been edited o reflect the following corrections: “Nuremberg” premiered in Stuttgart in 1948, not Berlin.