Talking to “Nuremberg’s” Sandra Schulberg about the film’s surprises

A conversation with Sandra Schulberg, the film’s co-creator/co-producer

Let Nuremberg stand as a warning to all who wage aggressive war, Justice Robert H. Jackson said in his closing statement at the first International Criminal Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany.

“Nuremberg” is a peculiar film to critique or write about; there are two different ways to consider it.  If you read the poster’s tagline and see the trailer, you’ll expect an epochal courtroom drama, which knocks almost any last half-hour of “Law & Order” on its butt.  If you somehow ignore or avoid the publicity, you find a disparate experience; you find the adamant anti-war message, which Justice Jackson, the Chief Prosecutor wanted.

“The greatest courtroom drama in history” poses more than a rhetorical problem; not only does that not describe “Nuremberg,” but that was neither Budd or Stuart Schulberg’s objective in making it, nor Justice Jackson’s.  He chose to use the film as evidence in his case against the Nazis.  Films made to be used as evidence probably don’t lend themselves to mass audiences with ease.

Sandra Schulberg, daughter of Nuremberg's writer-director Stuart Schulberg (courtesy Schulberg Productions)

To Sandra Schulberg’s mind, Mr. Jackson meant for the trial film to fill a nearly impossible order: be a comprehensive anti-war film, above and beyond the topics of war crimes or the Holocaust.  But those last pieces would show their faces, even if they were incidental to his agenda against what he called “aggressive war.”  And, then, he faced trial-based considerations.  Above all, his and the court’s zealous efforts established what we now call The Nuremberg Principles and the prospect of filing charges against crimes against peace (as in violating treaties) not humanity.

A conversation with Sandra Schulberg answered several profound questions.  And without being asked many of the questions that had been prepared, she went on to answer them either out of instinct or in an organic follow-up.

Will Wright: The poster calls the film “the greatest courtroom drama in history.” I was surprised that so much archival footage dominated the story.  I expected more court room, direct and cross examinations.

Sandra Schulberg: “This goes back to how the film was constructed.  It’s a very complex film!  All the affidavits from my father’s [Stuart Schulberg] unit [Photographic Branch/War Crimes unit] to identify every bit of footage…”Ms. Schulberg said.  “They [film crew] were sent to Germany in the months leading up to the trail, to put those together hand-to-hand with the prosecution with the film, “The Nazi Plan,” from 1945, according to imdb.

U.S. Signal Corps camera teams were able to shoot only 25 hours during the 10-month trial, a major challenge for the filmmakers (courtesy Schulberg Productions)

“I think the problem they ran into with the courtroom footage, they were supposed to film the courtroom themselves, but they had to turn it down ‘we can’t shoot the courtroom, we’re too busy’ with the evidentiary assignment.”

“Also they were really trying to…tell the whole story of the trial.  In a way they had to explain what led to the trial.  …To support the four counts of the indictment.”  (They felt an obligation in 1949 to tell or remind people of the time-line of atrocities.)  “So when it came to there not being a court trial film… this was a critical reason for that.”

The filmmakers also confronted unpleasant and pragmatic geopolitical considerations.  America’s foreign policy agenda had been knocked around a bit.

SS: “Two, it [America] became dedicated to rebuilding Germany’s economy.  So a film that reminded you of just how horrible they had been would have undermined the American support for helping Germany.  …During the war, people were persuaded that Germany had to be stopped.”

“The person who was – two people – who were very disturbed by the American decision not to show it to Americans.  The Russians became impatient, released “Judgment of the People,” and rented a big theater, [the] Stanley Theater, in NYC.”

“Pare Lorentz was the unsung hero.  Lorentz, he hired my father to make this film.  He was in charge of film, theater and music for the War Department.  It was Pare’s job to supervise the making of this film.  When he heard of American hesitance, he offered to buy it, so that he could release it.  He was refused.  He only got a print in the 1970s, getting a copy from” the U.S. National Archives.

SS: “When Jackson wanted to show the film, he thought “how on Earth do we expect to compete with the Russians?!,” Jackson wondered, when the Americans couldn’t even get the film released.  “He really pushed the government to show the film.” He was finally sent a letter from the Secretary of the Army:  “…It would not be useful to have the film seen.”

“They [American senior leaders] were very worried that, by that time,1949, if you showed the film to American’s, that it would undermine support for the new Germany.”  So the United States, as ever, had to decide which “truth,” among the several valid, although conflicting ones, best served the nation’s and culture’s strategic agenda, even if others, like either of the Messrs Schulberg or Justice Jackson were disgusted.

WW: It’s a vital historical document?

SS: “That’s on the one hand.  One is that the film leaves incontrovertible record of the Nazi crimes.  And Jackson says in his opening statements.  Every count of this can be proved by their own records, this avalanche of documents of the Nazis.  The trail left this indelible record,” Ms. Schulberg said.

“…Another piece of this is that the principle established at Nuremberg, the crime against humanity began the precedent: ‘The Nuremberg Principles.'”  There was a forty-some year gap between that and the modern trials,” such as those in Rwanda or Serbia and Yuoslavia and elsewhere.

Exposing this vehement anti-war film to fresh American eyes and minds

SS: “What I’ve learned from showing that film, in the US, they’ve never seen any of the courtroom material.  They haven’t seen a succinct summary of every thing that led to this.  All of the emphasis in the first third of the film was… the crimes of peace.  “Let Nuremberg stand as a warning to all who wage aggressive war,” Chief Prosecutor Jackson said.  “I’ve come to see this film as a really powerful message against all war.  Jackson was focused on using the trial as a way of deterring future acts of aggression,” Schulberg said.

Ms. Schulberg had also been stunned by the paucity of trial footage, and what the film’s and Justice Jackson’s objective had been.  The question – what constitutes crimes against humanity came into play.  “These are very important pieces of the story. That’s what surprised me – how much emphasis on crimes of aggression, crimes against peace,” she said.

SS: “The lesson of the film, today, of course one learns again a great deal about World War II, we’re still dealing with these crimes against humanity.  There were legal principles that established to punish those crimes.”

Comparing “Nuremberg” to iconic popular Holocaust films…

WW: How do you expect viewers to take different from better known or iconic Holocaust films, like 1993’s “Schindler’s List or 1990’s “Europa, Europa” or a recent documentary like 2004’s “Paper Clips?”

SS: “The films that you cite are fiction films” the most closest fiction film to dealing with this is “Judgment at Nuremberg” at lot of people will assume that it’s about the same trail I will be that one is about the fourth one – the third that followed the first one.”

“This film fills a big gap in the historical record…because at the time, there was no other film about the trail.  This was meant to be the film that…the world should see,” Ms. Schulberg said.

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“Nuremberg” war crimes movie, with meager trial footage, no clear heroes, falls short

You can’t criticize a Jewish movie, at least not Holocaust movies or war crimes movies.  While this isn’t so, it sure feels like it.  This is awkward for a movie critic.  None-the-less, “Nuremberg,” host for the world’s first war crimes trial, is also supposed to be a film about the trial.  It’s made from American footage that documented the due process or the process that was due to the Nazi defendants.  If you’ve been in court, your lawyer may have reminded the jurors that reality isn’t meant or suited for TV.  Well, you might say the same about this documentary.

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Chief Prosecutor, Robert M. Jackson (courtesy U.S. National Archives)

So, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson represented America’s interests and sat as main prosecutor, while Great Britain’s Lord Justice Lawrence sat as the court’s chief justice.  Their task was to bring to justice Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party, Hans Frank, the former Nazi governor of Poland, Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth head and their like in a criminal court.

Landmark Theatres’ Lagoon Cinema will start showing “Nuremberg: It’s Lesson for Today” on February 4th.  The question of “today” refers to the today of 1948, when it was made.  The producer, Sandra Schulberg, will attend on the 4th and 5th to answer audience questions.

Most viewers are probably familiar with the 1961 fiction, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” with its constellation of Hollywood talent, including Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich and many other, about the Nuremberg trials.  Most people have forgotten or don’t understand that, according to co-producer Sandra Schulberg, “Judgment at Nuremberg” portrayed the fourth or fifth out of several international criminal trials that were held in Nuremberg.  Some viewers may have assumed that it’s a fiction take on the original trial.

“Nuremberg” plays and feels like a film that you’d have to sit through in a history or social studies class.  Clearly this film was not made with commerce in mind. The story cuts between reading each of the four criminal charges and then a concise run-down of Germany’s historic milestones or deeds that built up to the final solution, using footage from two other films, described later.  Each of these types of footage is paired at least four times, as each charge is addressed.  The archive footage didn’t seem to refer to any of those charges, so its purpose is vague if not a mystery.  …Unless they were included so to remind viewers of why these criminals were on trial. (A conversation with Ms. Schulberg confirmed this.)

Film's original poster circa 1949

According to the film’s website, “the film makes extensive use of footage from The Nazi Plan and Nazi Concentration Camps, evidentiary films compiled under the supervision of Budd Schulberg, that were presented at the Nuremberg trial.”  How many film-goers are curious or zealous enough to peruse that site?

The opinion here is very different, even disparate (harsh and critical) from Andrew O’Hehir’s piece, “Nuremberg” for Salon.com, in September 2010.

It takes a good 20-minutes to figure out how the story and its structure will unfurl itself, and the point of “saying” that this is about the trial, while interspersing archive footage to maybe fill out the feature-length.  This is not one of the ten best films out there about the Holocaust.

This story works poorly, offering no entertainment value.  Yes. The prospect of pairing the words Holocaust and entertainment in a phrase is peculiar and more than a little icky, but a part of the potency and poignancy in 1993’s “Schindler’s List” and 1991’s “Europa, Europa” is that people enjoyed watching the stories.  There were people to root for.  A people is not a character.  “Nuremberg” has no one specific to care about, no specific personalities to root for.  Beyond a Jewish film festival, or high school or college classrooms, where else would this film find a mass of eager viewers?

The film’s pace and tone are key faults.  The major discomfort is that while the drama should be inherent, it often feels as dry as a business briefing.  This is for those young viewers, who haven’t yet seen footage of the conditions of the various camps’ prisoners, those emasciated and walking dead.   While Liev Schrieber’s narration helps guide us through the footage, it’s too bad that that footage is old news for older, more seasoned viewers, who expect a court movie to devote its time to…a court drama.  But reasons abound for the meager trial footage.

The film’s backstory is complex.  The technical and political problems, which the producers faced are explicated on its website or if you meet Ms. Schulberg – while one crew, Photographic Branch/War Crimes unit, was eager to capture as much footage as possible, they were overwhelmed with filming for the other two films, so the U.S. Army Signal Corps crew covered the trial.  While morose,  Ms. Schulberg’s relatives, Budd and Stuart, learned well after the fact that they had merely only 25 hours were filmed during the 10-month trial.

Filmmaker Stuart Schulberg's passport photo (courtesy Sandra Schulberg)

Criticizing this film brings a problem: outside of the fictional “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Nuremberg” may be the sole film that shows Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Hans Frank, Baldur von Schirach and their like in a criminal court.  It’s difficult to criticize a film with undeniable historical merit.  But few people will make a point of watching it because of the flaws explicated above.

If we were to rate this: 2 out of 5.