“The war was over, but there was no peace,” intones Liev Schreiber over images of hollow-eyed civilians lurching out of urban rubble at the start of Nuremberg, a vintage, astutely assembled relic of the 20th century’s most celebrated war-crimes trial. Commissioned by the U.S. government, the film, originally titled Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, was woven by writer-director Stuart Schulberg from footage of the initial 10-month trial of former leaders of the Nazi regime, and from two documentaries on the Reich’s war plan and its concentration-camp atrocities made by an O.S.S. unit—led by John Ford and including Schulberg’s brother Budd, future screenwriter of On the Waterfront.
Now restored by the filmmaker’s daughter, Sandra, with Josh Waletzky, including newly incorporated trial audio and rerecorded narration, the fact of Nuremberg‘s denial of a release in postwar America might seem incomprehensible until, after the movie’s first third details the conquest of Europe by Germany, the narrator declares, “Two of the world’s mightiest nations—the United States and Soviet Russia—blocked the Nazi drive for world supremacy.” By the time of the documentary’s completion in 1948, Stalin’s Reds had displaced the Nazis as the Yanks’s most loathed villains, and Washington preferred to consign its recent alliance with Moscow to the archives rather than domestic screens; the movie was seen in Germany and scarcely anywhere else for a half century.
Schulberg’s aesthetic is taken from the newsreel, but though his tracing of Hitler’s aggression from the Reichstag fire through the Anschluss and the invasion of Poland is now heavily trod territory, it’s brisk and relatively free of March of Time-style hyperbole. Here, history is edited as well as written by the victors, but the unprecedented horrors of the Nazis’ industrialization of death, from herding Jews to the gas chambers to euthanizing their own aged and disabled (“useless eaters”), makes propagandistic overreaching in recounting their crimes a hard barrier to reach. In the segments of testimony before the Allied tribunal, the equivocation and flimsy pleas of regret by the now-impotent defendants, including Göring, Hess, and Speer, are Nuremberg‘s centerpiece: the banality of evil men brought low. If the event chronicled still has a lesson for today, one might wonder if it relates to the absence of any possibility of Anglo-American perpetrators of “aggressive war” being placed in the dock for initiating trumped-up invasions, or to how the Nuremberg trials failed in their era to raise many questions about the moral balance of the atomic holocausts visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.