This re-excavated attempt to grasp the unimaginable packs an unexpected wallop.
In 1946, Stuart Schulberg was commissioned by the U.S. War Dept. to make a documentary about the Nuremberg trials. But for mysterious reasons, the film stayed unreleased and the negative disappeared. Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky have reconstituted a complete version from an extant German print, and despite past minings of the terrain (such as the French “Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes”), this re-excavated attempt to grasp the unimaginable, with its sober concision, clarity and inexorable buildup, packs an unexpected wallop. Docu opened Sept. 29 at Gotham’s Film Forum following its New York Film Festival bow.
Stuart Schulberg, along with brother Budd, had already been instrumental in compiling the original documentary footage used throughout the trial: a four-hour assemblage titled “The Nazi Plan” and the one-hour “Nazi Concentration Camps,” shot by Allied forces. From the beginning, Stuart Schulberg’s full familiarity with the footage is obvious. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Nuremberg trials, aside from the utter heinousness and sheer scope of the charges, was the fact that the Nazis condemned themselves with their very own meticulously preserved words and images.
Docu is structured according to the sequence of presentation at the trial, from the opening statements to the final verdicts and sentences. Damning quotations from Nazi directives and minutes of secret meetings enliven the narration, re-recited here by Liev Schreiber in close approximation of the original film’s voiceover. At first, the imagery registers as merely striking, picturing rowdy crowds in Munich streets as Hitler’s gang gains ascendency. Irony rules the section on “crimes against peace” as, in rapid succession, treaties are signed, only to be immediately violated by unannounced Nazi territorial advancement. In this context, Japan’s out-of-the-blue attack on Pearl Harbor following peace talks appears to be part of a well-established Axis pattern.
As each successive count of the indictment is read (first by the American prosecutor, then by the British, Russian and French prosecutors), the footage becomes increasingly disturbing. Visual evidence of war crimes include aerial shots of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, penned with no shelter on subfreezing, snow-covered plains. In Europe, piles of bodies line the streets of French and German towns, and emaciated members of the Polish intelligentsia and organized resistance are locked in buildings subsequently pumped full of carbon monoxide or set ablaze.
Jews barely receive a mention for the film’s first 40 minutes, but the section headed “crimes against humanity” starts with shots of storm troopers inciting anti-Semitic hatred to serve as an introduction to Hitler’s Final Solution. Although the visions of emaciated concentration camp inmates, of corpses being dragged and thrown into pits, and of infinite heaps of hair, gold teeth and eyeglasses have become quite familiar in the intervening years, their silent unspooling has lost none of its power to shock.
Schulberg does not include accounts of survivors who spoke at the trial, allowing the imagery of the film-within-the-film to speak for itself. Indeed, after this irrefutable accumulation of atrocities, the defendants’ testimony and cross-examination ring particularly hollow. The surprisingly nuanced verdict, which finds two defendants “not guilty on this indictment” and sentences others to terms in prison (as well as many to death by hanging), constitutes, in the words of presiding Justice Robert H. Jackson, “one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”