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Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial

Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial, is a BBC documentary film series consisting of three one-hour films that re-enact the Nuremberg War Trials of Albert Speer, Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess. They were broadcast on BBC Two in 2006 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the trials.

Production

The three films were produced and shown by the BBC to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg War Trials. Each film centred on a different one of the senior Nazis that were on trial and tells the story of their crime and punishment.

The films employ the dual docudrama format interweaving contemporary interviews and archive footage with dramatic re-enactments of the events. The cross cutting between footage of the real trial and the meticulously researched reconstructions garnered critical acclaim and a BAFTA nomination for the editor.

The series was filmed with the Panasonic SDX 900 DVCPRO 50 professional camcorder.

Performers

Participants

  • Prof. Richard Overy: University of Exeter
  • Richard Sonnenfeldt: Chief Interpreter
  • Henry T. King: US Prosecution Team
  • Roger Barrett: US Prosecution Team
  • Whitney Harris: US Prosecutor
  • John Dolibois: US Army Intelligence
  • Emilio Di Palma: Prison Guard
  • Bud Jones: Prison Guard
  • Ernest Michel: Auschwitz Survivor
  • Harold Burson: Radio Journalist
  • Prof. Robert Gellatel: Historian
  • Prof. Edgar Jones: Psychopathologist
  • Prof. Simon Wessely: Psychiatrist

Reception

Joe Joseph writing in The Times recommends the diligently researched series. Joseph commends the casting of Nathaniel Parker, Robert Pugh and Ben Cross alongside a vast array of costumed extras. He also admires the high production values that use meticulously constructed sets and washed out colours to match modern reconstructions to archive footage. Joseph however feels the production failed to achieve the right balance within the docudrama format.

David Chater writing in the same paper goes even further stating that the strength of the series rests in the contribution from eyewitnesses and historians and it is pointless to go to all the trouble and expense of the dramatic re-constructions. Although he does commend the series for shedding light on the crimes of individual members of the Nazi party and some of the personal, moral and political issues that surrounded the trials, he feels that it would have been far more effective as a straight documentary.

Harry Venning writing in The Stage proclaimed the series a cut above the standard drama-doc complementing the sparing use of claustrophobically set dramatic recreations and Nathaniel Parker’s suggestive performance but proclaiming that it was Robert Pugh’s sneering, swaggering, unrepentant portrayal of Goering that stole the show.

Andrew Anthony writing in The Observer commended the use of the dual docudrama format for examining the enigmatic Albert Speer in the first episode. Anthony also extols Nathaniel Parker’s cool portrayal of the “Nazi who said sorry”. Anthony however criticises the film makers for not outlining historian Susanne Willems’ recent revelation that Speer aided the expansion of Auschwitz into a more effective death camp.

Editor Ben Giles was nominated for his work on the show in the Best Editing - Factual category at the 2007 British Academy Television Craft Awards.

Episode one: Albert Speer

Episode one was broadcast on September 25, 2006 and drew 2.1 million viewers (9% audience share)

Clive Morgan writing in The Daily Telegraph calls the film an adroitly drawn, grimly fascinating hour and claims the film does a rather good job of sifting the complexities and ambiguities of Speer from a welter of courtroom detail and other historical records and commends it for cutting cleverly from actual to dramatised footage.

David Chater continues his criticism in The Times by proclaiming the dramatic reconstruction elements of this episode worse than pointless due to Nathanial Parker's unconvincing portrayal in the lead role.

Episode two: Hermann Goering

Episode two was broadcast on October 2, 2006 and drew 1.9 million viewers (8% audience share).

Chris Riley writing in The Daily Telegraph observes how the charismatic figure of Goering bestrides the entire series as he did at the trial itself. Riley also commends the recollections and pithy insights of the psychologist Gustave Gilbert that dot the episode.

Charter proclaims that not even a fine performance from Robert Pugh and immense pains that have been taken to ensure its authenticity can make the dramatisation feel real.

Episode three: Rudolf Hess

Episode three was broadcast on October 9, 2006 and drew 1.8 million million viewers.

Peter Naughton writing in The Daily Telegraph commends the film for classily blending dramatised reconstructions and newsreel footage.

The Times dismisses the film as a hammy dramatisation.

Plot summary

Episode one: Albert Speer

Episode one questions whether the “nazi who said sorry”, whose actions were the most far reaching and significant of the trial, was a troubled soul seeking forgiveness of the German people or the mastermind of a cynical strategy that fooled the world?

The film begins with re-enactment of Speer's arrest, which US prosecutor Henry King says came as a surprise to the aristocratic Architect who became Hitler’s armaments minister. Following arrest he is convicted of war crimes and transferred to Nuremberg Prison with Herman Goering and other senior Nazis. Speer is confronted with full crimes of the Nazis and says he will admit common responsibility against the advice of his Defence attorney and US Army intelligence psychologist Capt. Gustav Gilbert takes an interest.

Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson is concerned about the public trial and expresses the value of a single witness willing to accept culpability. Fellow defendant Fritz Sauckel incriminates Speer in the importation of slave labour. Speer admits to giving little thought to the legality or morality of this. Professor Richard Overy proposes that Speer saw his only chance in salvation was to establish a relationship with the Western prosecutors.

Speer’s defence put forward their clients countermandment of Hitler’s scorched Earth orders and plot on the Fuhrer’s life breaking the Nazi’s common front and infuriating its leader Goering. Speer explains to Gilbert his plot to gas Hitler which US prosecutor Whitney Harris admits was risky but half-hearted. Gilbert realises Speer can be used by the prosecution, and on his advice, isolates Goering who prison guard Emilio Di Palma says was worshipped by the other defendants.

In the dock, Goering launches a devastatingly successful defence against cross-examination and Speer begins to waver. Jackson agrees to cross-examine Speer himself and according to Overy gives the defendant an easy ride. Harris says Speer gave the prosecution what they needed by freely acknowledging his individual responsibility and denouncing the crimes of Hitler and the Nazi regime. As a result Sauckel is sentenced to death while Speer gets only a 20-year prison sentence.

US Army intelligence officer John Dolibois concludes that Speer used his charisma very effectively, persuading a lot of people and pulling the wool over their eyes.

Episode two: Hermann Goering

Episode two questions whether Hitler’s chosen successor could succeed where he had failed by re-igniting Nazi pride from the witness box.

The film begins with a re-enactment of the press conference organised following the surrender of Herman Goering at which he expresses surprise that he is to be indicted for war crimes. The regime’s top soldier had a fun loving public image that concealed the brutality of the founder of the Gestapo. US Army intelligence psychologist Capt. Gustav Gilbert hears from the prisoner how he knows he will hang but first will convince the German people that what he did was for them

The suicides of Hitler, Goebels and Himmler have left Goering the highest-ranking Nazi survivor and Prison Commandant Colonel Burton Andrus confides in Gilbert that without him they haven’t got a case. Prison guard Bud Jones tells of the extraordinary procedures put in place following the suicide of Robert Ley. Gilbert is assigned prisoner liaison to watch over the inmates and Goering confides in him his wish to be remembered as a great man.

As the trial begins the defendants, led by Goering, are initially jubilant but US prosecutor Whitney Harris tells that a film on the camps brings home to them their crimes. Chief Prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson’s cross-exam of Goering collapses into farce thanks to the defendant’s glib responses which Professor Richard Overy reveals put the future of the trial in doubt. Radio Journalist Harold Burson explains British Prosecutor David Maxwell-Fyfe rescued the trial by changing tack and putting Goering on the ropes.

Harris explains that the belated capture of Auschwitz Commandant SS Lt-Col. Rudolf Hoess finally revealed the true extent of the crimes and led to the defendants giving up the fight. Overy explains that Goering’s united front collapsed as one-by-one the defendants denounce Hitler and even Goering himself. Goering is subsequently sentenced to death by hanging. He lodges an appeal against the hanging, preferring a soldier’s death by shooting, but this is denied. The night of his execution he takes his own life with a cyanide capsule.

Overy concludes that with Goering sentenced and the Hitler myth destroyed the Third Reich was finally laid to rest.

Episode three: Rudolf Hess

Episode three explores the mind of one of the most fanatical of all Nazis and the insight that gives into the psychology of dictatorship.

Hess is brought to Nuremberg from the UK where he had flown 4 years earlier much to the bemusement of the British. Overy explains that they must have quickly realised he was not normal. In the intervening time Hess’s mental state and further deteriorated and when interviewed by Chief Interrogator Colonel John Amen proclaims amnesia. Chief Interpreter Richard Sonnenfeldt explains that they brought in Goering to confront Hess but that he too failed to make an impression.

The prosecutors fear Hess maybe unfit for trial and Prison Psychiatrist Major Douglas Kelley is assigned to assess. US Army Intelligence officer John Dolibois recalls that Kelley concludes from a Rorschach Inkblot test that Hess is not a true amnesiac but may have even convinced himself. US prosecutor Whitney Harris explains how after the trial begins with Hess pleading “Nein” the defendant claims to have been faking all along. However Sonnenfeldt points out that as the trial continues Hess’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and paranoid.

Psychopathologist Prof. Edgar Jones proposes Hess’s behaviour patterns maybe his way of escaping reality as he is forced to face the extent of the atrocities and chose between accepting his part of the blame or forsaking his Fuehrer. However as history Professor Robert Gellatel explains it’s difficult to construct a case against Hess as he was imprisoned in England when the worst of the atrocities were carried out so British Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones must argue a conspiracy charge linking the pre-1939 persecutions to the post-1939 atrocities and a crimes against peace charge proving the flight to Scotland was merely a ruse.

Meanwhile an increasingly unstable Hess is preparing to make an explosive revelation. Prisoner liaison Gustave M. Gibert discovers what this may be in Hess’s British medical records where he talks of being hypnotised by a secret Jewish drug. In his final statement Hess makes a long rambling speech, which Gilbert explains blames the Jews for their own elimination, ending with his exultation of the Fuehrer. Hess is consequently sentenced to life imprisonment.

In prison Hess drafts a letter proclaiming himself Fuehrer of the Fourth Reich and becomes an icon of the neo-Nazi movement

References

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