Film as Witness: Screening 'Nazi Concentration Camps' before the Nuremberg Tribunal

By Douglas, Lawrence | The Yale Law Journal, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Film as Witness: Screening 'Nazi Concentration Camps' before the Nuremberg Tribunal


Douglas, Lawrence, The Yale Law Journal


Introduction: Film as Witness and

The Problem of Representation

November 20, 1995 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the most unusual judicial proceedings of the century, the Nuremberg war crimes trials. After a day devoted to entering die indictment and the pleas, Robert H. Jackson, a sitting Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the chief counsel for the Allied prosecution, opened his address to the Tribunal with the words, "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated."(2) A week later, on the afternoon of November 29, 1945, Sydney Alderman, associate trial counsel, prepared the Tribunal for the presentation of the prosecution's most dramatic evidence of the Nazis' malignancy: "At this point it is planned by our staff to show a motion picture, and it will take some few minutes to make the physical arrangements in the courtroom, so that if the Court should feel like recessing, those arrangements could be made."(3)

After the short recess, Thomas Dodd, executive counsel to the American prosecutorial team, described the purpose of the screening: "[T]his film which we offer represents in a brief and unforgettable form an explanation of what the words `concentration camp' imply."(4) Jackson himself had mentioned the film during his opening statement, as he offered the first description of the evidence that would introduce Nazi genocide to the law's ken:

We will show you these concentration camps in motion pictures, just as the Allied armies found them when they arrived .... Our proof will be disgusting and you will say I have robbed you of your sleep.... I am one who received during this war most atrocity tales with suspicion and scepticism. But the proof here will be so overwhelming that I venture to predict not one word I have spoken will be denied.(5)

News of the camps, of course, had been broken months before the trial: British and American newspaper reports from Buchenwald and Belsen in late April and early May of 1945 had created a sensation.(6) "It is my duty,'" one British journalist had begun his dispatch, "`to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind.'"(7) Generals Patton and Eisenhower, as was well publicized, had ordered every soldier not committed to the front line to visit the camps.(8) Eisenhower himself had issued a terse statement, now etched into slabs of gray granite at the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.: "The things I saw beggar description .... I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to `propaganda.'"(9)

But rather than call Eisenhower to the stand, or any of the other thousands of soldiers who had been commanded to bear witness to Nazi atrocities, the prosecution turned instead to a novel witness - a documentary film.(10) This use of film in a juridical setting was unprecedented.(11) Crime scene photography was well established in Anglo-American courts; and while the turn to film proof was perhaps a logical extension of available technology, it nevertheless marked a wholly new method of documenting criminality. Though motion pictures had been submitted as trial evidence as early as 1915,(12) prior to Nuremberg, one can find no records of any court using graphic film of atrocities as proof of criminal wrongdoing. The use of film was necessitated, so the prosecution argued, by the nature of the crimes the Allies had assumed the burden of proving.

The Nazis themselves had recognized that the incredible nature of their atrocities would cast long shadows of doubt upon any allegedly eyewitness reports. Primo Levi describes how inmates at concentration camps heard the frequent taunt from their captors that should they survive, their stories would not be believed: "And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you. …

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