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A real life courtroom drama, suppressed

A real life courtroom drama, suppressed

By Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune

One of the more fascinating moments in "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today," occurs about 15 minutes in. A news documentary that covers the first in a series of military tribunals held in the wake of World War II, the film includes the opening statement from Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court justice who was the chief prosecutor. Though he speaks in measured tones, the words leave no question as the trial's intent: "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, so devastating that civilization can not tolerate their being ignored because it can not survive their being repeated."

And then he narrows his focus. "In the prisoners' dock sit 20-odd broken men," he says as the camera pans over the accused. Each wears a pair of headphones that provide a German translation of the proceedings. Some listen to Jackson's remarks impassively. At least one sits with his hand over his mouth. It's not clear if he's disgusted with himself or the notion of the trial. Two or three hide behind sunglasses, an unexpectedly strange sight. A few look defiant. Others look confused.

Written and directed by Stuart Schulberg after the 1946 verdicts — which ranged from acquittals to extensive prison terms to the death penalty — the film was constructed using courtroom footage as well as confiscated evidence of atrocities filmed by the Nazis themselves. For all its high-minded goals — documenting a trial that spelled out in clear and specific legal terms just why those in Hilter's regime were guilty of crimes against humanity — the film was never released in the United States and never seen by the general public. It was, to put it bluntly, suppressed.

"Very few people have ever heard the defendants speak for themselves" and utter coarse justifications for (or denials of) their actions, according to Schulberg's daughter Sandra Schulberg, a film producer in her own right whose credits include "Quills."

Her father, who had been studying journalism at the University of Chicago when Pearl Harbor was attacked, dropped out of school to enlist in the Marine Corps. He later became chief of the Marshall Plan motion picture section in post-war Europe before returning to the U.S. where he would go on to produce "David Brinkley's Journal" as well as NBC's"Today" show before his death in 1979 when he was 56.

It was a busy, distinguished career and the subject of "Nuremberg's" fate was not one that was discussed around the dinner table. Sandra Schulberg herself didn't see the film until 2004. She has since overseen a restoration of the original, which she brings to Chicago on Wednesday for a special screening, followed by a discussion with Schulberg and David Scheffer, a Northwestern law professor and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues.

As a historical record, "Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" was the first of its kind and it brings an immediacy to something frequently seen only in still images. "That's one of the strongest reactions that I get from audiences," Schulberg told me. "They're so amazed to hear what (the defendants) have to say for themselves. Some of them have the chutzpah to lecture the courtroom. Some of them seem to express remorse but it can seem very disingenuous. Some are defiant. It's quite a range of responses. And people have never had a chance to see that."

Watching it today, the trial feels almost Capra-esque in its triumph of legal process and moral certitude. Schulberg made sure it screened in Germany during his tenure with the Marshall Plan. So why was it suppressed in the U.S.? The short answer is timing. All four Allied nations involved in prosecuting the trial (which also included Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union) intended to make the film as a co-production until rival factions emerged from within, each of which had opposing goals. This complicated and delayed the process significantly.

That meant that the film was not completed until April of 1948, a year-and-a-half after the verdicts came down — and just as the Cold War was gearing up with the Berlin Blockade that June. Quite suddenly, the State Department had zero interest in releasing a film that showed the U.S. working hand-in-hand with the Soviets. (In the early '70s, the Army turned over its 35 mm print to the National Archives, where it became part of the public domain.)

There were yet more reasons the film was never released. "We found a letter," Schulberg said, "from the head of public relations at Universal Pictures who had obviously been shown the film earlier, when the War Department did plan to release it through one of the studios, and she writes, 'How on earth can you be thinking about releasing this film to the general public? The images are so gruesome they made me sick to my stomach.'" Three years after the war had ended, no one, it seemed, wanted to be reminded.

You can almost understand the sentiment and the problem seems almost foreseeable, at least from our 2012 perspective, informed by the immediacy of Twitter and nonstop news cycles. Why wasn't there urgency in getting the film out there much sooner after the verdict?

"It's hard to remember," said Schulberg, "but there was no television coverage. It took time to make a film like this. It was the only way people would have been able to see and understand the ideals of the trial and the process of the trial. And that, in a way, makes it all the more tragic that it was not allowed out for these political reasons."

The Schulberg name has significant roots in Hollywood, by the way. Budd Schulberg (Stuart's older brother, who died in 2009) was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of"On the Waterfront" and "A Face in the Crowd." If you go back yet another generation, B.P Schulberg (father of Stuart and Budd) was one of the earliest producers and studio executives working in Hollywood.

"If I were not a professional film producer," Schulberg said, "it might never have occurred to me to restore the film and try to get it released in the U.S."

"Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" screens 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Spertus, 610 S. Michigan Ave., spertus.edu

Twitter @NinaMetzNews

UPDATE: THIS EVENT IS NOW SOLD OUT

Thursday, July 26, 2012