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The Hollywood Reporter

Revisiting a Hollywood Crew’s Archival Effort to Use Film to Convict Nazis at Nuremberg

By Thomas Doherty,


On November 20, 1945, in Nuremberg, Germany, once prime real estate for torchlit Nazi pageantry, currently reduced to ruins by Allied bombing, the International Military Tribunal, an unprecedented experiment in transnational jurisprudence, convened in the city’s Palace of Justice, one of the few buildings left standing. The four victorious powers — the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union — had hauled the loser, Nazi Germany, before four judges and a global jury to be held accountable for violating a series of recently devised additions to the criminal code — crimes against humanity, crimes against peace, criminal conspiracy, and war crimes.

Twenty-one Nazi leaders were in the dock, defendants whose names most Americans had become familiar with in the years since 1933. The accused included Reich Marshall Herman Göring, Hitler’s brutal second in command; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who in August 1939 negotiated the pact with the Soviet Union that ignited the conflagration; Rudolf Hess, the unstable Deputy Führer and lapdog acolyte who in 1941 parachuted into the UK in a bizarre mission to broker a peace and sat out the rest of the war there; Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stürmer , a tabloid rag whose antisemitism was rabid even by Nazi standards; and Albert Speer, the urbane architect and brilliant Minister of Armaments and War Production whose talents helped to sustain the Nazi war machine. Still at large presumably was Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and gatekeeper, who was tried in absentia. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and, of course, the mastermind of it all had escaped justice by suicide.

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The case was airtight, and a new kind of evidence left little room for reasonable doubt. For the first time, motion pictures would be called into court to offer eyewitness testimony. “We will show you their own film, you will see their own conduct,” promised the American chief prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson in his opening statement to the tribunal. “Captured film enables us to present the defendant Alfred Rosenberg, who from the screen will himself tell you the story,” said Jackson, singling out the notorious Nazi theorist by way of example. It was a level of self-incrimination impossible to refute.

The cinema-centric story of the Nuremberg trials is told in Filmmakers for the Prosecution , a fascinating documentary directed by French journalist Jean-Christophe Klotz and adapted from film historian Sandra Schulberg’s monograph of the same name. It was released theatrically by Kino Lorber on January 27 before becoming part of the company’s permanent catalog. Clocking in at a brisk one-hour, the film superficially resembles the “making of” vanity documentaries included as extras on the Blu-ray editions of Hollywood blockbusters, but this behind-the-scenes story depicts a landmark moment in motion picture archeology. The films that served as Exhibit A in the Nuremberg Trials bequeathed a priceless repository of archival footage for the documentation of the rise, fall, and crimes of the Third Reich.

Klotz and Schulberg’s film is drawn mainly from the files, photographs, letters, and film cans left behind by Stuart Schulberg, Sandra Schulberg’s father. The family album tells quite the tale: how Stuart and his elder bother Budd Schulberg helped collect and edit the film unspooled at the first and best known of the eighteen Nuremberg trials. Fortunately for history, Stuart was something of a pack rat. The boxes of material include not only his personal letters and photos, but raw film from what appears to be a never-produced documentary about the Nuremberg project. Throughout Filmmakers for the Prosecution , Sandra appears as an on-camera guide, looking at images of her father as the young man she never knew.

Stuart and Budd were the fortunate sons of Hollywood royalty; their father was B. P. Schulberg, head of production at Paramount Pictures in the 1920s and 1930s. Budd entered the family business as a screenwriter in the late 1930s and, in 1941, shot to fame with the novel What Makes Sammy Run ? (1941), a character study of a species of American hustler who leaves no friend unscrewed on his way to the top. “Horatio Alger gone wild,” as Schulberg described him. Eight years younger than Budd, Stuart was just starting a career in journalism when WWII broke out.

Anti-Nazi activists and proud Jews, the brothers were eager for wartime service. Budd worked initially in the overseas branch of the Office of War Information and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Stuart resigned his job as a sports journalist at the Washington Daily News to enlist in the U.S. Marines. (Budd went on to a hugely successful career as a screenwriter and novelist, writing the screenplays for On the Waterfront (1954) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), both directed by Elia Kazan, who, like Schulberg, named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities [Schulberg in 1951, Kazan in 1952], which is another story. After the war, Stuart worked as a film producer before joining NBC in 1961, where he produced the Today Show for eight years. Stuart died in 1979, Budd in 2009.)

In 1945, the Schulberg brothers were assigned to the War Crimes Photographic Project of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA, under the command of the legendary Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan. The commander of Field Photo was the no less legendary Hollywood director John Ford, now a U.S. Navy captain. Also in the outfit was film editor and later director Robert Parrish, who probably spoke for most of the Hollywood veterans corralled under Ford’s command: “I followed his orders at Fox and then I followed his orders in the Navy.”

Justice Jackson, appointed by President Truman as lead prosecutor and on leave from the U.S. Supreme Court, personally made the far-sighted decision to highlight motion pictures as an evidentiary centerpiece of the trial. “The written word was absolutely inadequate in describing what had happened,” comments attorney Eli Rosenbaum, the former director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Investigations. “The only compelling way” to apprehend what had happened “was through film.” A front-page article in Variety headlined the news (“Pix as Evidence in Nazi Trials”) and bragged that “Hollywood — and U.S. showbiz in general — will cap its war efforts at Nuremberg, Germany” by helping to put the final nail in the Nazi coffin.

Budd and Stuart were the point men in gathering the footage and organizing it into two coherent motion picture narratives — the first, a chronicle of the horrors of the concentration camps; the second, a historical account of the premeditation and malice aforethought in the Nazi crime wave. Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1942-1945) for the War Department had done some of the groundwork, notably in Prelude to War (1942) and Know Your Enemy: Germany (1945), but the Nuremberg films had to play as forensic evidence not wartime propaganda.

By 1945, the line “good enough for government work” had become a glib catchphrase among the Hollywood professionals tasked with making routine training and instructional films for the War Department. Not with the Nuremberg work. Stuart’s letters home express the pressure he felt, his fear of “fouling up the biggest assignment Field Photo ever got.” He was not alone. The enlisted men and women working in the film labs and cataloging the miles of raw footage had agreed to delay their exit from the service until the project was finished. “You work only ten hours with these films and you [will] dedicate everything to winning the peace,” said one GI.

Initially, from stateside, the Field Photo team poured over hour upon hour of Fox Movietone newsreels of the Nazi regime, but General Donovan ultimately decided that none of the trial footage should originate in the United States. He did not want counsels for the defendants claiming the film had been tampered with.

Thus began a frantic search in Germany for usable Nazi footage. With the November 20, 1945 starting date for the trial looming, Stuart and Budd found themselves stymied as they tried to run down Nazi newsreels from the 1930s and official film taken by Wehrmacht and SS cameramen. Whenever they hear of a cache of film, they arrive too late to secure it; the Nazis, once so eager to document their actions, are racing to cover their tracks by burning the footage. “It’s likely,” says German film scholar Alexander Zöller, “that there was a systematic policy to destroy incriminating film.”

Filmmakers for the Prosecution makes effective use of a 2004 appearance by an eighty-nine-year-old Budd at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, NY, where he recalls his desperate hunt through the rubble of postwar Germany. After a series of false leads and dead ends, he gets word of a storehouse of Nazi film in the vaults at Neubabelsberg, the site of the UFA film studio outside of Berlin. Neubabelsberg however resides in the Soviet sector and relations between the former Allies are already tense. With nothing to lose, Schulberg schedules a meeting with the Soviet major in charge of guarding the studio. The major is brusque and asks why Schulberg presumes to be in the Soviet sector. Schulberg explains his mission — that he is seeking incriminating footage of the Nazis to be screened at Nuremberg at the behest of his superior, John Ford.

“You know John Ford?” asks the Soviet major incredulously. He has written two books on John Ford; he is the biggest John Ford fan in all of Russia. The major starts describing the camera set ups in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and insists that Schulberg tell him everything he knows about Ford, film by film. As for the Nazi footage? “Bring a truck,” says the major.

No excursion into Nazi footage would be complete without an appearance by Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazis’ most renowned filmmaker, auteur of Triumph of the Will (1935), her wide-eyed celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg, and Olympiad (1938), her epic chronicle of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In summer 1945, Riefenstahl is in convenient proximity, laying low at her chalet in Kitzbühel, Austria.  Warrant in hand, Schulberg takes “the Nazi pin-up girl” into custody and drives her back to Nuremberg in an open-air jeep. Brought into an editing room and shown Triumph of the Will, she helpfully identifies the Nazis saluting Hitler in the crowd shots and speaking on the dais, information very useful to the prosecution. (Schulberg told another Riefenstahl story, not included in the film, that is too good not to pass on: Riefenstahl told him she was a mere artist, aloof from politics, and, as proof, insisted that when she visited Hollywood in 1938, her many admirers in the motion picture industry welcomed her with open arms. This, of course, was a lie : Riefenstahl was shunned and run out of town, as Schulberg well knew. He had been a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and helped organize the boycott.) Also very helpful in identifying mugshots of the Hitler gang was the man who had taken many of them, Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer.

At the Jackson Center, Schulberg remembers what was for him the most unspeakable moment in all the atrocity footage he viewed: a glimpse of a Nazi cameraman, shouldering his camera, climbing out of a mass grave where corpses from the Warsaw ghetto were being dumped. The cameraman had positioned himself in the burial pit to get a low-angle shot of the bodies sliding down a shoot. A second cameraman captured the first cameraman scrambling up from the pit; the motion picture-wise Nazis had choreographed the body drops for double coverage. Klotz screens the harrowing footage and replays it in slow-mo.

While Film Photo edited the films, the unit also prepared for the exhibition of the featured attractions. The floorplan layout placed the motion picture screen at the front of the courtroom; the eight justices (one each plus an alternate for each of the Allied powers) were relegated to seats on the right side of the room. As French historian Sylvie Lindeperg comments, the displacement of the judges made the motion picture evidence “the focal point of the room.” (A real strength of Filmmakers for the Prosecution is its use of illustrations to show the courtroom design, the sightlines, and the placement of the cameras filming the trial itself.)

400 journalists were in attendance when the trial opened, but the tedium of the documents and the dead patches between simultaneous translations made interest wane. Not for long. On November 29, 1945, the prosecution called its star witness.

“Cinema, is it?” asked Göring when he walked into the courtroom and saw the set up.

“Ach, cinema! Cinema!” yelled Hess, playing the idiot.

“We will now show you what concentration camps means,” announced deputy prosecutor Thomas Dodd, before unspooling Nazi Concentration Camps , a 52-minute compilation of ghastly footage taken by Allied forces upon the liberation of the camps on the western front. The first sequence showed the aftermath of a mass murder at Leipzig, where men and women fleeing a burning barracks were mowed down by machine gun fire. Then came extended sequences from official military film (some of which had been released to the American public by the commercial newsreels in May 1945) showing the skeletal survivors and piles of corpses from Hadamar, Nordhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau, and Belsen, where the corpses were stacked so high bulldozers were used to push them into mass graves.  (The death camps in Poland, where most of the extermination was performed, were no longer active assembly line murder mills when the Soviets rolled through, hence the lack of footage from the Red Army liberators.)

After the lights went up, everyone looked at the defendants to see their reactions. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the German Armed Forces, wept. Erich Raeder, Grand Admiral of the German Navy until 1943, was so shattered he remained seated after the film finished, frozen in place even after the court was adjourned. “I didn’t look at it,” former Reichsbank Minister Hjalamar Schract whispered to Walter Funk, his successor. “It would have made me sick.” Funk sat huddled on the bench, sobbing.

On December 11, the second film, The Nazi Plan , at nearly four hours, was screened. A compilation of the Nazis’ own newsreels and feature films such as Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and the Nazi combat reports Campaign in Poland (1940) and Victory in the West (1941), it proved that the regime had means, motive, and opportunity. Divided into four parts, the film tracked the twelve-year Reich step by step: from 1921 to 1933; 1933 to 1936; 1936 to the outbreak of war; and 1939 to 1945. (Unfortunately, as an impartial documentary history, the film is seriously compromised. Out of deference to the Soviets, the Hitler-Stalin Pact is ignored; out of deference to the feelings of the French, the famous shot of Hitler doing a jig after the French surrendered in 1940, is omitted.)

To most of the defendants, The Nazi Plan was less an indictment than a highlight reel of their glory days— the colorful swastika-festooned rallies and parades, the joyful celebrations of Hitler’s birthday, the appeasement at Munich, and the victorious blitzkriegs. The Associated Press reported that “Göring bounced with delight when he saw himself on screen, and the other defendants dug each other in the ribs whenever their faces appeared on screen.” They hummed along with “The Horst Wessel Song” and tapped their feet to the martial music. Dazzled again by the star power of the Führer, Ribbentrop blurted out, “Now you can understand why we were all taken in!”

On October 1, 1946, the verdicts come in. Eleven defendants were sentenced to death, seven to prison terms, and three were acquitted. One was sentenced in absentia — Martin Bormann, a name that, curiously, the film never mentions. Göring cheated the hangman when a sympathetic American officer slipped him a cyanide capsule the night before. The rest of the condemned men were hanged like common criminals rather than executed by firing squad, a soldier’s death.

Although always compelling and sometimes mesmerizing, Filmmakers for the Prosecution has a major flaw — the Schulberg-centricity of the documentary sleights the contributions of the rest of the Field Photo team, most notably Commander E. Ray Kellogg, the Shulbergs’ immediate superior.

Before enlisting in the US Navy in September 1941, Kellogg had worked for fifteen years as director of special photographic effects for Twentieth Century-Fox. It was Kellogg’s responsibility not only to supervise the Nuremberg films but to stake his reputation on the utter integrity of the footage, to affirm that no doctoring or manipulation had taken place in the editing room. For Nazi Concentration Camps , he signed a formal affidavit (co-signed by John Ford) projected on screen at the top of the film and read aloud in voiceover. “I have carefully examined the motion picture films to be shown following this affidavit,” he states. “And I certify that the images of these excerpts from the original negatives have not been retouched, distorted, or otherwise altered in any respect and are true copies of the originals held in the vaults of the United States Army Signal Corps.”  Kellogg also laid out the plans for the projection of the films and the lighting scheme in the courtroom.

In interviews at the time, Kellogg told how the footage haunted him. At Fox, he had worked on Harry Lachtman’s Dante’s Inferno (1935), a lurid melodrama highlighted by a phantasmagorical interlude in hell. “We had to make it all pretty horrible,” Kellogg said, but the real-life infernos created by the Nazis beggared anything conjured by Dante or Hollywood. For his part, Kellogg gave due credit to Schulberg as an archival film scrounger. “Budd didn’t let the impossible stop him,” Kellogg said in 1945. He “brought back film treasures beyond measure.”

The film story of Nuremberg had a sequel of sorts. Unlike stateside courtrooms, which banned newsreel cameras, the Nuremberg courtroom was motion picture friendly. Understanding that the trial was history in the making, Justice Jackson insisted on “a cinematic record of the trial,” — not gavel to gavel, but selectively.  Three soundproofed booths were constructed for 35mm cameras to cover the action.  In the end, around 35 hours of footage of the trial was shot.

In a prelude of Cold War races to come, American and Soviet filmmakers competed to be the first to produce a documentary of the trials.  Stuart’s progress was blocked by bureaucratic infighting between the stateside War Department and the American Military Government in Germany . As a result, the Soviets got to the finish line first with The Nuremberg Trials, a 58- minute account released in May 1947. Shown in the Soviet zone in Germany under the title Gericht der Völker ( Judgment of the Nations ), it conveyed “the impression that the Red army singlehandedly won the war and brought the Nazis to justice.” “Reds Beat Yanks on Nuremberg Film” was the humiliated headline in Variety .

Not until 1948 was the Stuart Schulberg version finally completed — and then promptly shelved. Sandra Schulberg believes that the realpolitik of 1948 — the year of the Berlin Airlift, by which time the gallant Red Army under good ol’ Uncle Joe Stalin had become the Red Menace — caused Stuart’s film to be suppressed by the War Department. Doubtless. But the theatrical release of a dated documentary on the Nuremberg trial was never a likely scenario. (In 2009, Sandra restored Stuart’s film, entitled Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. ) Also not getting a theatrical release stateside were Nazi Concentration Camps and The Nazi Plan . Americans had seen all they wanted to see of the atrocity footage in the newsreels and had no desire for another history lesson on the rise of Nazism.

In the years since, of course, the footage that the Schulberg brothers, Ray Kellogg, and the rest of the Field Photo team found and edited has had a permanent afterlife as a public domain source of archival material for untold documentaries and feature films about Nazism. Often, as in the Nuremberg Trial, the films have been threaded up and projected as the smoking gun evidence for a skeptical audience, as in Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946), Sam Fuller’s Verboten! (1959), and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment in Nuremberg (1961).  They have become, what Filmmakers for the Prosecutor calls, without exaggeration, the building blocks for the construction of “our collective memory of the Holocaust.”

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