Thursday, September 23, 2010

NYFF ’10: Nuremberg

In 1949, American service men were risking their lives to defy the Soviet Union’s Berlin Blockade, while taxpayers were spending billions on the Marshal Plan to rebuild the German economy. Perhaps for these reasons, Hollywood studios were not eager to distribute Stuart Schulberg’s Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (trailer here), a U.S. Army Signal Corps produced film documenting the Nuremberg tribunal and the crimes for which the National Socialists stood accused. Though it played throughout Germany as part of the de-Nazification campaign, it is only now reaching American theaters in a special restored version, beginning with a special screening this coming Tuesday as part of the 2010 New York Film Festival.

Schulberg and his brother Budd (of What Makes Sammy Run fame) were attached to the OSS’s film division when they were assigned to work on special films at the behest of U.S. Nuremberg prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson. The resulting four hour The Nazi Plan, consisting of the Nazis’ own footage, and the one-hour Nazi Concentration Camps, compiling film shot by the liberating allies, were indeed shown as evidence during the tribunal, with select clips also incorporated into Nuremberg.

With Nuremberg, Schulberg was greatly constrained by the availability of footage. Only twenty-five hours of video was shot and the audio was recorded separately, out of synch. As a result, his cuts relied entirely on narration. However, Schulberg’s filmmaker daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky replaced some narration with the actual audio recorded during the tribunal for their restoration, rerecording the rest with Liev Schreiber. Unfortunately, the prospective American nitrate prints had deteriorated beyond use for the so-called Schulberg-Waletzky Restoration, but the surviving German print frankly seems more appropriate, given its role in the de-Nazification process.

There are indeed some horrific images in Nuremberg, as well as a succinct Cliff Note guide to the tribunal. Arguably, understanding of Nuremberg is a mile wide and an inch deep. For instance, our current president once favorably cited the military tribunal in his own opposition to military tribunals. It is certainly also worth bearing in mind that the Nuremberg Tribunal returned three acquittals.

Had Nuremberg reached American theaters in 1949, it would have shocked audiences. Educated viewers should still be sickened by the crimes Stuart Schulberg documented, but they ought to be somewhat prepared for them. To be sure, Nuremberg is a historically significant film, but it is hardly the definitive documentary on the Holocaust. Viewers should also take note, if the NYFF post-screening panel is anything like the press conference, it is likely to resemble a politically charged advocacy session on behalf of the International Criminal Court, which would push the boundaries of decorum considering the gravity of Nuremberg’s subject. Recommended (particularly for the historically challenged), Nuremberg screens this coming Tuesday (9/28) at NYFF, with its regular New York theatrical run beginning the next day (9/29) at Film Forum.