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Nuremberg: It’s Lessons for Today

Original film directed by Stuart Schulberg

Reviewed by Malcolm Maclachlan

Just because Nazis were bad doesn’t mean their enemies were good. That would have been a “lesson for today” this film could have taught – but didn’t. Which brings us to a historical paradox of the Third Reich: that it was so evil, so violent, so breathtaking, mind-numbingly reprehensible that its very former existence serves as cover for a rather pestilent state of moral affairs that existed at the time even without it.

Let’s back up. “Nuremberg: It’s Lessons for Today” is a modern updating of a 1948 film about the 11-month trial of the high-level Nazi officials who were still alive when World War II ended. That original film, by brothers Stuart and Budd Schulberg, was a victory for courageous filmmaking. On the surface, it works as both a triumphalism, allowing these war criminals the kind of due process they never allowed their victims, illustrating how a civilized society works in the process. It also featured, and still does, lots of shocking Holocaust footage, at a time when viewers were not nearly so jaded as today.

Behind the scenes, they struggled at every step. Some of this was against the efforts of the Nazi’s themselves, who sought to destroy archived footage and records of their crimes before they could be fully exposed. Next came pressure from the U.S. government and military, which sought to limit their access to the trial and content of the final film.

And this is exactly the “lesson for today” we still don’t get. But the modern version does little to update the original, aside from adding a new narrator: Liev Shrieber, a good actor, but whose credentials here seem to consist of being part Jewish and being the co-star of a recent mediocre Holocaust movie (“Defiance,” 2008).

The problem is the “Lessons for Today” part, because the updated film seems to add little to the lessons it taught 63 years ago: that Nazis are bad, and the world should have done more to stand up to them early on. As a history of the Nazi regime, it’s pretty useful and understandable, from how Hitler and his cronies used the machinery of democracy to lie and bully their way to power, to the end game, when the Reich pulled resources from the battlefield to make sure they could kill as many Jews as possible before their inevitable defeat.
But a number of things we know now are lost here. One, there’s little mention of all the mid-level Nazi scientists who avoided paying for their own crimes by taking jobs in the U.S. missile and nuclear programs, which quickly turned their attentions to the Soviets.

There was also little about how the Nazi’s anti-Semitism fit into the larger European and American world at the time: that it was merely an extreme version of the ambient anti-Semitism that also existed in the societies that defeated the Nazis. It was a time when high-up State Department officials felt free to casually mention things like how Detroit was “filled with dirt and Jews.” Which would be bad enough, except that some of these same officials were cluelessly focused on pushing Germany to pay its World War I reparations while German factors were filling up with tanks and German cities were emptying out of Jews, gypsies, gays and other widely disfavored groups. (See “In the Garden of the Beasts,” the new non-fiction book by Eric Larson, author of “Devil in the White City. ”)

Also unmentioned are allegations that U.S. and Soviet military commanders did little to prioritize liberating concentration camps, even while they were the scenes of rushed last-minute mass murders. None of this, of course, fits into the narrative of “The Greatest Generation” or the wave of WW II nostalgia that has kicked in as we have fewer and fewer of the people who fought this war still around. As a group, they were unquestionably courageous, on a scale that we can hardly even comprehend today. And there is an understandable modern longing for the moral certainty of that time.

But that doesn’t mean that their leaders were equally courageous, nor that the times were so morally certain when they were happening. It also doesn’t mean that today we share all the current or former values of that Greatest Generation. As a child, I remember admiring the great uncles who fought in that war and pestering them with questions they wouldn’t answer. Yet I can’t get through an episode of “Mad Men,” a series which depicts the golden age that generation fought for, without feeling physically sick.  

Moviebriefs

By Tony Sheppard

This week see the openings of three neat movies, each with something different going for them. The first, “Bridesmaids,” is seriously laugh-out-loud funny and might be thought of as a female equivalent of movies like “The Hangover.” It’s not for everyone, as it comes packed with crude sexual humor and bathroom jokes – but if you like that kind of thing it might be the funniest movie you’ve seen this year. Kristen Wiig’s Annie has to cope with long time best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding plans as they take on a life of their own, leaving Annie feeling under-appreciated. Along the way the movie manages to say almost as much about the dangers of bad Brazilian food as it does about friendship.

In many ways, “Bridesmaids” has the broad tone that one might associate with Will Ferrell. Meanwhile Ferrell’s own new movie is a departure for him, with a more subtle level of circumstantial humor rather than an in-your-face yuckfest. In “Everything Must Go,” Ferrell joins the ranks of actors like Bill Murray and Robin Williams, who are most associated with comedy but who give their best performances in dramas. Ferrell plays Nick Halsey, a barely-functioning alcoholic who loses his job and his marriage on the same day and struggles to come to terms with this new reality. It’s a cool character study, but it may not satisfy those who like a more plot-driven outcome.

“POM Wonderful: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is the latest film from Morgan Spurlock, who stormed the documentary world seven years ago with “Super Size Me.” Rather than simply tackle the topic of product placement in movies from an objective perspective, Spurlock undertook the exercise of tackling the subject matter while also attempting to sponsor the entire film through blatant brand placement contracts. The outcome is a fun and irreverent look at this particular form of marketing, with some amusing elements that include embedded testimonials and commercials (as well as the failed pitches). You’d have to watch 90 of the competitors’ films to get this much onscreen advertising.


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