June 1, 1997

Pare Lorentz's Nuremberg into the Spotlight

Pare Lorentz, 1940

Pare Lorentz's film Nuremberg, which many of his admirers have never seen (U.S. distribution was long held back on political grounds) is finally taking its place in the spotlight.

It has been scheduled for a Los Angeles showing on June 2nd at the Museum of Tolerance, on the occasion of IDA's announcement of its new, endowed IDA/Pare Lorentz Award. And Nuremberg will also be included in the Pare Lorentz Boxed Film Set, also recently announced by IDA. This video collection will contain The Plow That Broke the Plains, The River; The Fight for Life, and Nuremberg, along with an account of Lorentz's life and work by media historian Deirdre Boyle.

The making of Nuremberg (1946), last Pare Lorentz's major films, was itself an epic awash in conflict. It was a project of the Civil Affairs Division of the War Department. Its Reorientation Branch had the mind-boggling task of reeducating people long immersed in Nazi doctrine. The Nuremberg trials, which began in November 1945, were a start in this reeducation, but were seen by few Germans. A film based on the trials was to make their devastating evidence more widely known. Lorentz undertook the film under orders from General Lucius Clay, Supreme Allied Commander in occupied Germany. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, gave permission for the trials to be filmed. This photography was done by combat cameramen still on duty in Europe.

During the trials the courtroom was dominated by a large screen on which the prosecution presented documentation of each of the charges against the defendants. Much of this came from the evidence-gathering units that had entered Germany with the allied armies. Of special importance was the work of Stuart Schulberg, who became Lorentz's collaborator on this film. He had entered Germany in service of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, CIA forerunner), with the mission of locating film that could help convict war criminals. Such footage was found in many places including homes of Nazi leaders, who seemed intent on preserving evidence of their services to Nazism. Some of this became damning evidence against them. In a villa near Munich used by Himmler, agents came on a projector on which a film was threaded, ready for screening. It showed death camp experiments on humans.

Of the 24 Nazi leaders placed on trial, all on specific individual charges, 21 were convicted, 12 hanged, others imprisoned. Hermann Goering escaped via suicide. Martin Bormann remained at large. Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler had committed suicide before the trials.

That there would be, in Germany, resistance to the making of Nuremberg, was to be expected. But Lorentz found an undertow of resistance even among his own constituents. After V-E day, many among the allies hoped that priority would go not to punishing the already defeated Nazis but to "finishing off" the Soviets. Americans heard this message in many places including the Vatican. Some critics argued that crimes charged at Nuremberg were not crimes when committed but largely obedience to official orders. Some of the defendants used this defense at the trials. But Justice Jackson emphasized that the 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact, had outlawed aggressive warfare and had made individuals responsible for their actions.

While millions of feet of film were being distilled into Nuremberg under Lorentz and film editor Joseph Zigman, exhibition strategies were weighed. For showings of the film at theaters, should normal prices be maintained? Or, in hope of maximum attendance, should prices be reduced? The final choice was an opposite strategy. To emphasize the historic importance of the screenings, premium prices would be in effect. Under this policy theaters were filled to capacity for two years in the American and British zones of occupied Germany.

Many assumed that Nuremberg would then have U.S. screenings, but high-level policy took a different direction. During the postwar years West German Chancell or Konrad Adenauer and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles developed a warm rapport; they saw, in close U.S.-German cooperation, a bulwark against the spread of communism. Adenauer is said to have urged on Dulles the view that screenings of Nuremberg in the United States would rekindle wartime hatreds and set back the developing unity. In accord with this view the film virtually disappeared from sight.

During these years I started research for my book Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, and interviewed Lorentz, Schulberg, and Zigman. From Schulberg I heard something that astonished me. Having played a major role in the production of Nuremberg, he wanted a print for his own collection, but his request was denied by the military. A Defense Department bureaucrat even told him there was no such film. I myself had been unable to find a print to screen, but was surprised at how thorough the blackout had apparently become.

During the Kennedy years a shift began. Boston's station WGBH-TV became interested in presenting a Pare Lorentz retrospective, of course including Nuremberg. WGBH-TV hoped to extend this to the Public Television system. Because Mrs. Kennedy took an interest in this and let her wishes be known, Nuremberg came out of hiding. Lorentz was allowed to recut it for the Public Television screening. This broadcast version, made on perishable videotape , ha s disintegrated, but the film survived in National Archives holdings based on the German version. In the early 1970s, when I visited the Archives shortly before my Documentary went to press, I was welcomed by archivist William Murphy with the news that he had a print of Nuremberg and could show it to me. Later the film was included in a National Archives catalog of Documentary Film Classics "produced by the U.S. government." So Nuremberg is no longer a mystery film. It is good to be able to report that it will now be freely available from IDA­—either as part of the Lorentz boxed set or individually.


ERIK BARNOUW is Professor Emeritus from Columbia University and widely regarded as the pre-eminent scholar of documentary film history. He received the first IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award, in 1985.