On September 29 TCM ran the final night of their Five Came Back tribute, based on a recent book by Mark Harris about five American film directors — Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens — who enlisted in the U.S. military during World War II and were assigned to make films for the war effort, either documentaries on actual battles, histories of the lead-in to the war or, in Stevens’ case, films showing the aftermath of Nazi rule. The legend of George Stevens’ career is that after establishing himself as a director of romantic comedies — including Alice Adams and Woman of the Year with Katharine Hepburn, Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the film TCM showed just before the war documentaries, The More the Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn — as well as the campy adventure-spoof Gunga Din with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Fontaine in 1939, Stevens was part of the film crew that first documented the horrors of the Nazis’ concentration camps and death centers after the Germans surrendered at long last. Stevens was understandably revolted by what he saw — the dead bodies piled like cordwood and buried in mass graves, the survivors looking like living skeletons — and he insisted on photographing the most horrific scenes himself rather than putting any of his crew through the grim experience. Virtually all the footage of the camps and their victims, living and dead, that gets recycled again and again in virtually every documentary on the Holocaust was shot by Stevens and his crew.
In 1945 his unit, under the authority of producer Ray Kellogg (who gets screen credit on the feature-length film The Nazi Plan even though Stevens does not!), were asked to produce three films to be used in connection with the war-crimes trials of the top Nazi leaders at Nuremberg in southern Germany — a site picked because that had also been the location of the big annual Nazi party conferences, including the 1934 Sixth Party Congress famously filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her feature-length documentary Triumph of the Will. The films Kellogg’s and Stevens’ unit produced included a 10-minute short called That Justice Be Done, which explained the rationale behind the war-crimes trial and why the Allies were constructing a court, including opportunities for the defendants to testify on their own behalf and be represented by counsel, instead of just taking them out and hanging or shooting them (the way the Russians had actually wanted to do). The person chosen by President Harry Truman to head the court was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (ironically, one of Jackson’s colleagues on the Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, published a critique of the Nuremberg Trials at the time, saying that dress them up in as much of a simulation of due process as you could muster, they were still “victors’ justice” and the charges the Nazis were being tried for, including “waging aggressive war” and “crimes against humanity,” were so vague that under U.S. law they’d be unconstitutional), and the trials went ahead with most of the defendants sentenced to death, though Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess got long prison sentences and the Nazis’ finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht, was acquitted (and paid the sincerest form of flattery, imitation, when Allied countries post-war enacted similar restrictions on exports of their currencies).
The Nazi Plan was made entirely from captured German film, and a series of intertitles at the beginning (including a long letter from the general who’d been in command of the unit that had made it) assured us that everything we were seeing and hearing had been authentic except for the voice-over English translations of the German leaders’ words as shown in the clips — and even those were as honest as they could be made. The initial clips are silent — the evidentiary nature of the documentary precluded adding sound effects the way documentarians would if they were making a film for entertainment or education, not courtroom evidence — and it’s only when we get closer to the Nazis’ takeover of power in Germany on January 30, 1933 that the films not only acquire sound but are clearly professionally made by people with state-of-the-art equipment and ample production budgets to make us see the Nazis the way they wanted us to see them. Leni Riefenstahl’s films make up a good portion of the compilation — not only Triumph of the Will (made at the 1934 Nazi party conference in Nuremberg) but also Victory Through Faith (a half-hour short from the 1933 conference quickly withdrawn from circulation after Hitler ordered the purge of Ernst Röhm, the Gay officer he had put in charge of the Sturm-Abteilung, or SA, storm troopers, along with Röhm’s associates and the Strasser brothers and other Left-wing Nazis who took the “socialist” in their movement’s name seriously and called for a “second revolution” that would overthrow Germany’s military and corporate establishments — which was about the last thing Hitler wanted because he realized the only chance he’d have of winning the world war he intended to start was with the established German military and the existing corporate infrastructure to produce arms for it) and Day of Freedom, which Riefenstahl shot in 1935 and which showed the German military on parade, because the day they had been shown at the 1934 Nuremberg event had been too cloudy for good filmmaking and therefore they weren’t included in Triumph of the Will.
Most of the rest of the movie was produced by the Deutsche Woschenschau, the “German Weekly Newsreel,” whose makers, while not at Riefenstahl’s talent level, worked similarly to exalt the German military and its traditions, as well as the Nazi movement in general, and produced a product that has been called considerably more artistic and effective as propaganda than its Allied counterparts. The Woschenschau crews went out with Germany’s armed forces and photographed the battles as they were going on (as did similar crews for Germany’s enemies), making movies like Campaign in Poland and Baptism of Fire (the latter another film about the Polish conquest made after Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command and also the head of the Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, complained that the importance of the air battle in destroying Poland’s will to resist had been short-changed in Campaign in Poland), as well as their final movie, Traitors Before the People’s Court. This was an account of the trials of the plotters who attempted to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944 and was dominated by Roland Friesler, the judge Hitler assigned to conduct the one-sided show trials — only when the film was released Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered it pulled because the defendants were coming off with far more dignity than the crazy Friesler (who in the clips shown in The Nazi Plan seems to be a prototype of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the other post-war inquisitors in the U.S. Congress who badgered witnesses they suspected of being Communists in similar fashion). Just as Goebbels was taking the Traitors film out of release, the trials themselves came to an abrupt end when a British bombing raid on Berlin scored a direct hit on the courthouse and killed Friesler and everyone else in the room at the time.
The Nazi Plan is in a way more powerful than some of the more openly propagandistic anti-Nazi documentaries about Nazism that have been made since precisely because of its restraint, as well as the knowledge — inseparable from the experience if you see Triumph of the Will “complete” — that we are seeing the Nazis as they wanted us to see them. These outrageously regimented shots of virtually indistinguishable people marching in military formation (whether they were actually in the military or not — one scene from Triumph of the Will included here depicts what Hitler called the “German Labor Battalion,” a group of young men marching and distinguishable from the actual military only in that they’re carrying shovels instead of rifles, though they’re still holding and manipulating them in classic military fashion), which the Nazis were presenting as evidence of how their rule had pulled Germany out of the partisan disunity of the Weimar Republic and united the nation into a common sense of purpose that would prove unbeatable are oppressive enough on the surface — when I first saw Triumph of the Will I described it as “Hell, as choreographed by Busby Berkeley” — and even more oppressive when you realize that this was the Nazis’ dream of perfection, the ideal society they were killing all the Jews, Communists, Gypsies and Queers to achieve. The Nazi Plan is chilling enough on its surface, but it’s even scarier in context — Dwight MacDonald once said that Triumph of the Will showed more of the evil of Nazism, even though Riefenstahl’s conscious intent was to glorify it, than the “properly” anti-Nazi documentary Mein Kampf (1963) because “the equation works out differently, since we put a minus where she puts a plus, but because she’s an artist she can’t help clarifying.”