“Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes” is a curiously low-key condensation of the Nuremberg trial, culled almost exclusively from courtroom footage filmed under the supervision of John Ford (now digitally remastered), which fascinates with its dry avoidance of drama — those rare moments of emotional intensity threatening to tear apart the layers of judicial dispassion in which the tribunal swathed itself. Pic’s procedural emphasis first appears irrelevant to its avowed subject, yet the red tape-clogged, precedent-setting proceedings manifest a stubborn will toward clarity that feels strangely appropriate. Rewarding to patient viewers, “Nuremberg” should find a stable berth on television.
Those drawn to the film by its subtitle will doubtless be disappointed by the lack of concentrated focus on the reactions, or absence of reactions, of the SS defendants in the dock. But in fact, French director Christian Delage has a hidden agenda that, in retrospect, clarifies the thrust of his 90-minute edit.
As a historian, Delage is obsessed with the growing role of reproduced images in shaping history. In this light, the emphasis on the myriad cameras recording the trial as well as the documentaries-within-documentaries screened in the courtroom (showing concentration camps as well as the slaughter of civilians and POWs in Russia) begins to make structural sense.
At the same time, the trial is inseparable from these projected images — which, moved up on the docket to spark flagging interest in the slow-moving proceedings, shocked the courtroom, and sent figures filing out in silence once the lights came back on.
Contrary to the depiction in Hollywood’s Spencer Tracy-Judy Garland starrer “Judgment at Nuremberg,” testimony by victims was surprisingly sparse, as it seemed to discomfit members of the tribunal. A female survivor, mastering her emotion as she adamantly recounts what she witnessed at Auschwitz (her account culminating with the screams of children thrown into ovens alive), is interrupted by a judge before she can move on to her experiences at Ravensbruch, on the supposition of redundancy. (The witness dryly disagrees: One was a functional death camp, the other worked people to death.)
Testimony from Nazis immune from indictment proposes horror of a different stripe: One calmly remorseless SD leader responsible for killing 90,000 Russian Jews makes fine distinctions between shooting them up close or at a distance.
Consummately narrated by Christopher Plummer with silky gravitas, docu also highlights the reaction of a stunned world to the atrocities uncovered a mere six months earlier — judges’ and prosecutors’ ringing indictments echoed by citations from the packed rows of international press (a young, mustachioed Walter Cronkite in their midst). Yet in its methodical matter-of-factness, docu cannot but reveal the gap between the vastness of the crime and the narrowness of its punishment.