“Filmmakers for the Prosecution” – A picture is worth a thousand words [MOVIE REVIEWS]
Based on Sandra Schulberg’s monograph entitled “Filmmakers for the Prosecution”, director Jean-Christophe Klotz has crafted a documentary full of previously unknown information on how the first Nuremberg trial was constructed based on film and photographic documentation shot by the Nazis themselves.
In 1945, with the end of the war in Europe, the allies came together in London to discuss how to punish the Nazi perpetrators. It was decided that a war crimes trial would be held in Nuremberg, Germany, where members of the German high command would face justice. One approach that appealed to the allies was to let a photographic record of their actions be the most effective witness for the prosecution. Assigned to the task of uncovering movie footage and still photographs that would bolster the case were the Schulberg brothers, Stuart and his older brother Budd, already a renowned novelist for What Makes Sammy Run. They were assigned to the OSS (precursor to the CIA) Field Photographic Branch led by director John Ford.
With only three months to collect photographic evidence for the trial, they needed to locate footage and film shot by the Germans and their allies.
The Schulbergs took their mission to Germany and began scouting for places that might yield what they needed. If the Nuremberg Trials were going to be successful in holding the sovereign state of Germany and its high officials accountable, then they would need film shot by Nazis for their own purposes, whether propaganda or documentation of their “accomplishments.”
Screening the German version of “Triumph of the Will” by Leni Reifenstahl, they went to Reifenstahl herself to identify various individuals in the film, some of whom had previously denied membership in the party. They next found a trove of films documenting the actions in the Warsaw Ghetto, including footage of the bodies of emaciated Jews being buried in open trenches.
A real find was the entire stock of Hitler’s photographer where they learned that the SS had their own film archives documenting atrocities. These films were used as after dinner entertainment. Following more leads, they discovered that a huge cache of film had been buried in some salt mines. Unfortunately with this stockpile and others, the Schulbergs and their team were always just behind former German soldiers tasked with burning the evidence.
All trails led to Berlin, already divided into different sectors, where the most important collection was in the hands of the Soviets. Against all odds, they got their greatest cooperation from the officer in charge of that sector. When he found out that this was a unit led by John Ford, he was over the moon. As luck would have it, he was an expert, possibly the world’s foremost expert, on Ford, having written books on the director. The photos in their possession were invaluable to the trial.
Now with evidence in hand, they prepared for court, putting movie screens front and center to show what had been found and bolster the prosecution.
But their job wasn’t done. They also set up camera locations in the courtroom to document the trials as they occurred. Filming the proceedings was an attempt to show the world the impartiality of the trial. The Soviets were also filming the trial, trying to control the narrative.
At the end of the trial, Stuart Schulberg took his footage home and began cutting together his documentary. With red tape and the political rivalries between branches of the government, the process took much longer than expected. Unfortunately for Schulberg, the Russian film premiered first, further interfering with his plans. When, eventually, he finished his film,”Nuremberg: A Lesson for Today,” endorsed by Robert Jackson, Justice of the Supreme Court and Chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, the sands of political loyalty had shifted. The Soviets were no longer our allies; the U.S. was “rehabilitating” Germany, needing their post-war cooperation; and the government could not allow a film that showed the Russians in a favorable light. His documentary was shelved.
Interviews with survivors of the main players, including the son of one of the prosecuted Nazis, add depth to the story. Sandra Schulberg, daughter of Stuart, a producer and the author of the monograph, is a frequent presence. She led the restoration of her father’s previously shelved film.
Most interesting, however, is the story of the hunt for the films and the impact on the two Schulbergs as witnesses to history. It is a shame that a better narrator wasn’t found because this dramatic film was in need of an authoritative voice-over. At only 60 minutes, this film flies by.
English, French and German with subtitles.
Opening Friday February 3 at the Lumiere Music Hall and the Laemmle Town Center.