Delivering the news in the late 1940s that Universal Pictures would not release Stuart Schulberg’s documentary about the 1945–1946 Nuremberg trials of 22 senior Nazi officers, the company’s p.r. flack explained to the film’s producers that “the subject matter and the way it is treated is altogether too gruesome to stomach.” And right after World War II, when the breadth and depth of Third Reich war crimes was just beginning to surface, Nuremberg’s ancillary footage, shot in ruined cities, ghettoes, and concentration camps by Nazi and Allied photographers and spliced with the trial by Schulberg and his famous brother, Budd, must indeed have been hard to take. Not that this was grounds for the studio (with covert agreement from the Truman administration, which had facilitated the making of the film) to decide that the American public couldn’t handle a film that had been widely screened in Germany for two years.
Now that we are up to our necks in Holocaust iconography, are we unshockable? Is there a schoolchild in America who hasn’t seen footage of the emaciated bodies piled high or flung into pits; the concentration-camp inmates staring hollow-eyed from their bunks, listless with hunger and disease; the mountains of gold teeth and shoes; starving city dwellers avidly licking the sides of empty garbage cans; a young woman being dragged along the ground by her hair? Does the release of a remastered Nuremberg at Film Forum, 60 years after the trial, add to the uncomfortable sense that we all may be perpetuating genocide porn?
Certainly it adds to our growing desensitization, though it’s clear that was not the intention of Schulberg’s daughter, Sandra, and Josh Waletzky, who supervised a painstaking restoration for the film’s first theatrical release in North American theaters. With the addition of documents found in Stuart Schulberg’s widow’s apartment and sober narration by Liev Schreiber, Nuremberg is clearly a labor of love. It’s also a posthumous restitution to the Schulberg brothers, who, as part of a special army unit led by John Ford, recorded footage outlining Hitler’s expansion through Europe. The new version’s most notable achievement, though, is enhancing the trial scenes with a refreshed soundtrack that allows us to actually hear the defendants’ translated testimony, a tawdry ragbag of defiance, denial, rationalization, Hitler-blame, and mutual betrayal—and, once in a while, an expression of remorse corrupted by pleas for lenience. This testimony, along with close-ups of the impassive, contemptuous, angry, or fearful faces that go with it, may test even the most committed opponent of capital punishment.
Also loud and clear for the first time are American prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson’s stirring addresses, which opened and closed the trial: “Let Nuremberg stand as a warning to all who plan and wage aggressive war,” he famously said. If there’s a takeaway for audiences today, it’s a sad one of lessons ignored or flouted after half a century of global mass murder. If you were to Photoshop Pol Pot, Milosevic, Karadzic, or any of the world’s many other self-appointed ethnic cleansers into the lineup along with these 22 war criminals, they wouldn’t look out of place.