Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today

NUREMBERG: ITS LESSON FOR TODAY (1948) [The 2009 Schulberg/Waletzky Restoration]

screening at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival

by Tobi Gordon for FILMbutton

The documentary film has come a long way since its early days as either an instructional tool or tool of propaganda. The ponderous male voice intoning over scratchy black and white images has dissolved into elegant HD color and cinematic techniques reminiscent of the most sophisticated cinematic productions in Hollywood. Documentary filmmakers as diverse in their intentions and styles as Ken Burns and Michael Moore have actually been able to make a substantial living entertaining their audiences with historical valentines or indignant rants. There is even the renowned international ‘Hot Docs Film Festival’ right here in Toronto, each Spring, celebrating this genre, which only goes to show you that, today, there is enough interest in this form to generate both the films and a commercially viable audience to watch them, beyond the high school classroom.

But it wasn’t always so. Some documentaries have had a hard time finding an audience. So it was with this one, which, although shown in Germany directly after the war, was ‘withheld’ for many decades to other audiences for political reasons. It is finally being screened as a ‘Special Presentation’ on April 18 (view video clip here) at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, having been restored by Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky who will appear with Evan Solomon as guests of the festival.

To get whatever kind of grasp of the whole subject the human sensibility is even capable of, this recent resurrection of the documentary, originally made in 1948, by Stuart Schulberg and Pare Lorentz, who were working for the U.S. Military, shows everything you need to see about the causes of WW2, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s, their diabolical plans and the catastrophic results and the subsequent attempt to bring the leaders to some small measure of justice. To me, ‘Nurenberg: Its Lesson for Today’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ are pretty much all one needs to see comprehend whatever a human being might be capable of, on the political, sociological and personal levels, of that particular historic failure of humankind.

Most of what you are seeing has never been seen in North America before. The German footage, especially of the steamrolling Nazi run-up to the political domination and destruction of Europe, was confidently gathered by an organization that planned to showcase its success to future generations. It celebrates and glorifies deeds that later became horrors of history. This Nazi footage was gathered quickly by the producers in the chaos right after the war and used as evidence during the subsequent trial. If you think you’ve seen it all, or don’t need to see any more, you’d be shocked to see what more there is to see. That insidious ‘banality of evil’ stains every frame.

The structure of the film follows the structure of the historic trial, setting out the case against the accused in an organized manner, using recorded film of their own despicable deeds, made by them, against them. And these deeds are not simply stated. This is a film, so the images do the work. The camera pans the staggering piles of evidence spilling over the tables in the courtroom and piles of bodies stacked like cordwood in the concentration camps, with the impassive detachment of a bystander, which only goes to bring home the point that, to these men, sitting in the prisoner’s box, it was all in a day’s work.

As for whether or not ‘Nurenberg’ serves as ‘a lesson for today’, as its producers hoped when they first made the film back in 1948, that would depend on who goes to see it. For many of us, already steeped in Holocaust education, who have seen many other documentaries and dramatizations and may even have parents and grandparents who have ‘survived’, and may feel we don’t need any more lessons, there is still a lot to be gained by seeing the way this film fits all the pieces together in a dispassionate way, pulling in an enormous amount of factual information in only 89 minutes , which only serves to intensify the calamity of the events (as if they need intensifying). There is no need for the emotional overtones that were commonly used in early documentaries and usually cannot be avoided when telling this story. It simply speaks for itself. As narrator, Liev Schreiber fills in the pertinent details, but both he and the script refrain from any bias either in content or tone. It isn’t necessary. You can see for yourself. The impact is just as devastating. The extent to which such atrocities have been emulated around the world, over recent decades, suggests the hope of the producers, that exposing these deeds would be the cautionary tale to prevent such actions in the future, was idealistic, at best.

What are the chances that it gets wide release and people even have an opportunity to see it? Given the events of the last few decades, its lesson can’t be learned soon enough. It should be required viewing, as part of the process of becoming a human being, but without the requisite cute penguins, I wonder at its chances outside parochial schools and synagogue learning sessions.

Unfortunately, the very people who should see it and learn its lesson, are probably too busy denying the events exposed in its footage or are teaching their own children how to perpetuate its horrors. What a legacy for the human race.

Tobi Gordon is a former Media Studies teacher in Toronto and avid film fan.

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