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NYFF 2010. Stuart Schulberg’s “Nuremberg”

62 years after its premiere in Germany, Nuremberg finally saw its US premiere at the New York Film Festival last night and opens for a one-week run at New York's Film Forum today (see the official site for further screenings throughout the US). Clearly, there are reasons that about half of most of the reviews so far are taken up with the story behind the film, and few handle it better than Bill Weber in Slant:

"Commissioned by the US 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 OSS 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."

"Look at the defendants' box and they're all there," writes David Fear in Time Out New York: "Hess, Speer, Göring, Von Ribbentrop and other surviving members of the National Socialist Party's top brass. Gathered together in postwar Nuremberg, Hitler's henchmen listened to prosecutors detail the various atrocities they'd been accused of, both as individuals and as part of an administration that tore Europe apart. Some simply sat there; others had their heads in their hands, shaking back and forth. A few even expressed remorse when they stepped up to the witness stand. Viewers know how this courtroom drama ends, but to see the actual footage from the Nuremberg trials in such long, extended clips is shocking."

In the Voice, though, Ella Taylor asks, "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?" Nuremberg's "most notable achievement... 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."

"The shocking revelations that appear in Schulberg's film are now well known," agrees AO Scott in the New York Times. "But there is a raw immediacy in Nuremberg that nearly closes the gap between past and present. You don't necessarily see images of slaughter and cruelty for the first time, but you grasp some of what it must have been like to do so — to uncover clips showing what most human beings up until then could never have imagined. You also appreciate the systematic, scrupulous nature of the trials themselves, which combined legalistic punctiliousness with deep moral passion. The guiding spirit of the Nuremberg trials is worth recalling now, in the midst of the continuing argument about how to deal properly with enemies who show nothing but contempt for the norms of liberal society."

And from Kenji Fujishima at the House Next Door: "In light of, say, the continuing atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, or past instances of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia, the lessons of the Nuremberg trials still reverberate to this day."

"What struck me as most interesting about the film was the way in which Justice Robert H Jackson, Chief US Prosecutor at the trial, lays out as succinctly and understandably as I have ever heard or read how Hitler's war on the world came directly from his own book Mein Kampf," writes James van Maanen, "and then how the man, his generals and his army invaded country upon country, after giving each one assurances of peace and no interest in taking over its territory. Hitler's crimes against humanity are horrible enough, but this clear explanation of the manner in which he laid waste to eastern and western Europe is striking enough to turn history into something lean, immediate and ferocious."

"Nuremberg bears evidence of the constraints placed on its creators at the same time as it displays how they nonetheless fashioned a succinct and stirring account of a landmark subject," writes Michael Joshua Rowin in the L.


At the press screening, "Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement," notes Ed Champion, presenting a transcript and an audio file. "Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials."

Update, 10/1: "You won't get any sense of the fascinating (and ongoing) legal and philosophical debate surrounding the Nuremberg trials, which have been attacked as a fraudulent exercise in 'victors' justice' and defended as a breakthrough for international human rights." Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "Schulberg paints in broad strokes, creating an intensely riveting  78-minute portrait that tries to capture both the flavor of a dramatic 10-month trial — one of the 20th century's first and biggest media spectacles — and the horrific history that provoked it."

Image: Writer-director Stuart Schulberg (left) at Nuremberg's 1948 premiere in Stuttgart, Germany, with OMGUS film officer John Scott (right). (Schulberg Family Archive)

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