Premiering in the country for which it was partially intended nearly 65 years after its completion, the 1948 documentary Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today was intended to celebrate American might. Instead this film, commissioned by the U.S. government, skipped postwar America, for reasons that only become obvious in the final stretch. The eleven months of the Nuremberg Trial—only 25 hours of which were allowed to be filmed—are boiled down to 80 minutes, although the footage still often plays like proto-C-SPAN. Students were supposed to marvel at the four-country tribunal that classified the surviving Nazis as war criminals, and proved Jewish extermination; patriotic adults were intended to chuckle as Göring, Hess, Speer and more humiliated themselves with weak defenses, then made fun of during Robert H. Jackson’s alternately stirring and quippy closing speech.
Alas, one of the tribunals was Soviet, and the narration ultimately extols about how the U.S. and Soviet Russia together “blocked the Nazi drive for world supremacy.” By 1948, the Soviets had usurped the Germans as enemy number one and, not wanting to upset the populace with a film where the current baddies were goodies, the film never opened stateside.
After much restoration, including the location of a new print and the re-piecing together of the soundtrack, Nuremberg is touring the country in an approximation of what it once was. (Well, mostly: Liev Schreiber, sounding like a robotic school teacher, stands in as narrator and occasional dubber.) Writer and director Stuart Schulberg, younger brother of novelist/screenwriter Budd, worked on films for the Marshall Plan. Schulberg crafted a calm account that lacks the hyperbole of propaganda from either side of the war. When it’s not just-the-facts-ma’am, it’s grim, realist, cautiously optimistic: The opening minutes dwell on the rubble of Europe, stressing the hard road ahead. The work of war hardly ends when war ends. The finale quotes Jackson, warning that “those who start a war will pay for it personally.” And with that, we have the titular “lesson for today.”