For our eyes, finally: Nuremberg comes to U.S. screens more than 60 years after infamous Nazi

Stuart Schulberg, a Jew working for the great director John Ford in the U.S. government’s film unit at the end of World War II, was charged with finding German-shot footage to be presented at the Nuremberg trial of the top surviving Nazi brass.

Speed was essential, as Germans with access to photographic evidence were wasting no time destroying it.

Although the Nazis’ vast trove of documents proved invaluable to prosecutors, Schulberg’s compilation films — “Nazi Concentration Camps” and the four-and-a-half-hour “The Nazi Plan” —  arguably had the greatest impact on the courtroom.

In conjunction with all of that, Schulberg (who died in 1979) was assigned by the U.S. War Department to make the official film of the 10-month trial. His concise yet comprehensive work, “Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today,” was screened widely in Germany upon its completion in 1948.

Justice Robert H. Jackson (center) served as chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial. photo/nara

But the film was quietly shelved in the United States and forgotten. For the last five years, Sandra Schulberg, the filmmaker’s daughter and a veteran independent film producer, has devoted herself to giving “Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today” a second life.

“I had many doubts along the way because it was so hard to raise the money, and people didn’t respond to the obvious historical mandate that it should be restored and shown,” Schulberg says in a phone interview from her East Coast home.

This terrifically crisp, crackling and invaluable documentary is opening at three Bay Area theaters Jan. 21, and another Jan. 28. The film’s run in the Bay Area is being co-presented by the Human Rights Center at U.C. Berkeley and the Goethe-Institut San Francisco. (The website has a lot of interesting information about the film.)

“Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today” had its local premiere in October at the Mill Valley Film Festival, with Schulberg in person. She returns to the Bay Area and will speak at some screenings Jan. 21 to 23.

The 80-minute film is ostensibly a record of the trial, and Schulberg and filmmaker Josh Waletzky went to great lengths to enhance the film by replacing some narration with original audio of Justice Robert H. Jackson and the British, French and Russian prosecutors, as well as defendants Hermann Goering, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Albert Speer and others.

Sandra Schulberg photo/schulberg productions

“What surprises me,” Schulberg says, “is that people who do know this material very well, who are experts on the cinematography of the Holocaust and who didn’t expect to learn anything from the film, had never heard the defendants speaking in the courtroom in response to cross-examination, or in their final summations, justifying or expressing recognition of what they’d done.”

In the course of depicting justice being served, the documentary uses the trial to frame the egregious history of the Third Reich from its beginnings through the Final Solution.

“As we get further away, the vast majority doesn’t know the details” of World War II, Schulberg observes.

Schulberg was conceived in Berlin during the blockade and born in Paris. Her father continued to make and supervise films in Germany and France through the mid-1950s, before returning to the U.S. and eventually signing on as TV newsman David Brinkley’s producer in Washington, D.C.

Schulberg hasn’t been able to unravel the mystery of why the film didn’t screen in the United States. One theory is that with the Cold War on, the government wanted all eyes on the Russians.

It is tempting to see veiled anti-Semitism as the real reason, given the State Department’s restrictions on the number of European Jews allowed into the U.S. in the 1930s and ’40s. In addition, recently declassified documents reveal U.S. efforts to camouflage or expunge the records of high-level Nazi figures — not scientists, mind you — and help them immigrate to this and other countries.

Schulberg won’t indulge in speculation, however.

“Regardless of whether there was a specific connection made between that policy of providing some refuge for some Nazis, the bigger-picture point was that the American government was trying to get the American people to focus on the Soviet threat and stop thinking about the Nazis,” she says.

“Nuremberg” opens Jan. 21 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Camera 3 in San Jose, and Jan. 28 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. Producer Sandra Schulberg to speak at all screenings Jan. 21 in Berkeley and Jan. 22 in San Francisco, and some San Jose screenings Jan. 23.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.