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The Twisted Art of Documentary

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1948)

a film directed by Stuart Schulberg and restored by Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky

A Film Unfinished (2010)

a film directed by Yael Hersonski
AP Images
Hermann Göring, front right, during a recess at the Nuremberg trials, November 24, 1945. At front left is the American intelligence officer G. M. Gilbert, who served as prison psychologist and interpreter for the Nazi war criminals.
The function of propaganda is…not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

All governments make propaganda. The difference between totalitarian government propaganda and the democratic kind is that the former has a monopoly on truth; its version of reality cannot be challenged. Past, present, and future are what the rulers say they are. Which is why, from the official point of view, there is no stigma attached to the word “propaganda” in totalitarian societies. Nazi Germany had a Ministry of Volk Enlightenment and Propaganda, and the Soviet Union a Department for Agitation and Propaganda.

The idea that rulers should impose their own realities exists, at least as an aspiration, in democracies too. It was nicely summed up by a US government official not so long ago who stated that “we [the Bush administration] create our own reality.”1 But democratic governments and parties are not supposed to dictate the truth. We expect partisanship from our politicians; they can try to make their case. But the word “propaganda” has a negative connotation. It smacks of coercion, or official lying. And so propaganda cannot be called that, but must be disguised as “news,” or “information,” or “entertainment” (Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver). The propaganda department of the US government during World War II was called the Office of War Information, and on several occasions during the last Iraq war heroic myths were presented as news stories.

This is not an argument for moral equivalence. One can be arrested for exposing official lies in democracies, but the chances of that happening are a great deal slimmer than under dictatorships, where the fate of whistle-blowers and naysayers is often far worse than jail. Nor is it an argument against governments trying to propagate a message. This can be necessary to mobilize people behind a difficult but essential enterprise (fighting Nazi Germany, say). Perhaps the masking of propaganda is an inevitable bit of hypocrisy in a democratic society, even though slipping fictions into news stories as facts cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Some propaganda is not only made for a good cause, but can be factually true. But if so, can we still call it propaganda? And if it is for a good cause, should we still mind that it is propaganda? If it is also good art (pictures commissioned by churches or kings or the Cuban Communist Party, for example), should we care about the cause? Some of these questions, and more, are raised by the current release of two fascinating documentaries, one the reconstruction of a US government film made in 1948 to justify the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and one about a perverse and vicious Nazi propaganda film, made in 1942, that was never completed or shown. Neither the Nuremberg nor the Nazi movie could be classified as great art, even though A Film Unfinished, the documentary about the Nazi movie, is certainly an extraordinary accomplishment.


The idea for Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was born in a special film unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) led by John Ford, the famous director. His associates were Navy lieutenant Budd Schulberg (who went on to write On the Waterfront, among other things) and Budd’s brother Stuart, a Marine Corps sergeant. The original idea was to compile visual evidence about the Third Reich to help Justice Robert H. Jackson, the US prosecutor at Nuremberg. The material was culled from Nazi propaganda films, newsreels, private movies, and indeed anything the fimmakers could lay their hands on that hadn’t been destroyed by the Germans at the end of the war.

This actually resulted in three films. Two were shown in the courtoom, entitled The Nazi Plan and Nazi Concentration Camps. These were not released to the general public. A third film, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, produced by Pare Lorentz, who had written documentaries during the New Deal, was directed by Stuart Schulberg. Now brilliantly restored by his daughter Sandra and Josh Waletzky, it was shown only to German audiences at the time. It combined material from the films shown at the trial with new footage shot of the trial proceedings by cameramen from the Army Signal Corps. The movie begins with part of Jackson’s opening statement about the trial being a way to make “peace more secure” and serve as a “warning against all those who plan to wage an aggressive war.”

Much of the film will be quite familiar to anyone who has an interest in Nazi history: the rallies, the speeches, the Blitzkrieg, the ghastly scenes of corpses being dumped into the mass graves of Belsen. The most unusual footage is the only scene not screened in the courtroom at Nuremberg, of a car pumping carbon monoxide into a sealed room. This improvised gas chamber was filmed by an SS commander who used such methods to kill Jews as well as mental patients.

The reconstruction of the 1948 documentary, which had only survived with a German soundtrack, is a remarkable feat: testimonies in the trial had to be transferred from wax recordings and synchronized with images on the screen; the score was recreated by the composer John Califra from musical cues jotted down by the original composer, Hans-Otto Borgmann, who, curiously, had had a previous career writing music for such Nazi propaganda movies as Hitlerjunge Quex (1933).

Although no doubt useful as a historical document for future generations who will be less familiar with images of the Third Reich, Stuart Schulberg’s film is especially interesting for what it tells us about the time when it was made: that short period between the Nazi war crimes trials, undertaken in the hope of building a better, more just world, and the beginning of the cold war, when harder-nosed policies prevailed. Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today was a propaganda film, but the exact nature of the propaganda was contested from the beginning. This contest reflected bureaucratic battles within the US government, as well as political differences about priorities in the new postwar order.

Robert A. McClure, director of the US military government’s Information Control Division, saw the film as a tool to teach the Germans a lesson. It was to be part of the denazification programs set up by the Allied occupation governments, the cinematic counterpart, as it were, of forcing German citizens to tour the concentration camps and see what their country had done. The producer, Pare Lorentz, however, had a wider, more idealistic vision, shared by Justice Jackson and the War Department in Washington, D.C. The lesson for today had to be a lesson to us all. The trial, with its newly created laws, was meant to be a moral exercise, a beacon of justice to light the way to a better future, and the film, as Schulberg and Lorentz conceived it, was supposed to justify that goal.

In the short run, the War Department won this battle over messages. Despite various attempts by McClure and the military government in Germany to produce alternative scripts and make a different movie, one less tied to the trial itself and more to Nazi crimes in general, the Lorentz/Schulberg version eventually got made. By dividing the film into sections following the main indictments at Nuremberg—war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace—the documentary makes the case for the prosecution, without considering the legal problems of victors judging the vanquished according to laws that did not exist when the crimes were committed.2 Scenes of Hermann Göring running rings around Jackson in his cross- examination are not shown. Nor is any attention paid to Allied war crimes, such as the terror bombing of civilian populations, or to the fact that Stalin’s Soviet judges were hardly in a position to represent impartial justice or to prosecute crimes against humanity. The main Soviet judge, Iona Nikitchenko, had presided over some of Stalin’s worst show trials during the purges in the 1930s. He told his colleagues in Nuremberg that impartiality was just a waste of time. But challenging the Nuremberg trial in any way was the precise opposite of what the film was intended to do.

Since this movie was supposed to have a universal message, it was slated to go into general release in the US and elsewhere. Even though the message of the film accorded perfectly with Jackson’s views, he was worried about the use of Nazi propaganda material. Wouldn’t it look too convincing to the uninformed viewer? “Unless,” he said, “the audience is informed as to the falsity of the claims made in the propaganda films, the films really are what they were intended to be—good propaganda for Hitler.”3 It is difficult to see his point from our better-informed perspective today, but Jackson made sure that the films were carefully tailored to avoid giving Americans the wrong impression.

In the end, Americans were never shown the movie at all. It was good enough for the Germans, who flocked to see it in 1948 and 1949. But as the cold war began, Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets, the Marshall Plan gathered speed, and priorities changed. A new Communist enemy had to be faced. It was not expedient to stir up further American hostility against the Germans by paying too much attention to Nazi atrocities. Enthusiasm for war crimes trials began to wane in official quarters. And so, in the medium term, the line taken by the military government, that the lessons of Nuremberg should be confined to the Germans, won the day after all.

But now, after the cold war, the original purpose of the film has come back into its own, with an added twist of history. When it was made, and the trials were still going on, the persecution and genocide of the Jews were an important part of the Nazi story, but not yet the crux of it. This was before the publication of Anne Frank’s diary, before the Eichmann trial, before the Holocaust came to define evil in modern history, or was even used as a common term at all. The main purpose of the film was to warn the world against waging aggressive war. Now that the Holocaust is the most familiar, and in many cases just about the only thing many Americans know about World War II, Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today will largely be seen as a warning against racism. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just shows how history lessons change with the times, regardless of the intentions of the people who originally conceived them.


One of the things Budd Schulberg turned up in the fall of 1948, from an archive in Soviet-occupied Babelsberg, site of the famous UFA movie studios, was a two-reel film shot by German cameramen in the Warsaw ghetto. Presumably this was from the same cache that was uncovered by East Germans less than ten years years later, part of an unfinished Nazi movie made in 1942, entitled Das Ghetto. The ghetto occupied less than 3 percent of the city land. Some 450,000 Jews were squeezed into filthy tenements, often without water, heat, or sanitation. By the time the ghetto was liquidated in April 1943, 100,000 had died of hunger and disease. That the movie had been made for propaganda is clear. One of the surviving German cameramen, named Willy Wist, admitted as much during an investigation in the 1960s into the deeds of a former SS commandant of the “Jewish residential district.” He said, “Of course we knew it had a propagandistic purpose.” But he claimed not to have known what that purpose was. Since the film was never completed, we still don’t know for sure.

  1. 1

    An aide to George W. Bush, quoted by Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004. 

  2. 2

    Even though war crimes were already a recognized category, crimes against peace, including conspiracy to wage aggressive war, and crimes against humanity were not. 

  3. 3

    These quotes are in Sandra Schulberg’s forthcoming book, The Celluloid Noose (Pub. TK, date TK), which contains the recollections of Budd Schulberg as well. 

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