“Judgment at Nuremberg”
Responsibility and Guilt
In basic moral terms, the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg seemed to be simple but involved and perplexing when we look at the realities and the question of how much responsibility and guilt the individual must bear for crimes committed or condoned by him on the order and in the interest of the state. (I never thought that I would write a statement like this knowing what terrible genocide had been conducted by the Nazis but thinking about it now, I realize that emotion often clouds judgment).
Looking at the Nazis as we do in “Judgment at Nuremberg”, we become aware that potent reasoning and sympathy is given to the side of the Germans who claimed innocence of the Nazi crimes out of ignorance and national expediency. This emerges as a double-edged issue when the interest of those who seek justice is raised, they are urged to compromise their own moral principles and shirk responsibility.
However, with the logic and fervor of advocates for humanity—and with the clarity and firmness of the judges who sat in the Nuremberg trials—director Stanley Kramer and his incisive scriptwriter, Abby Mann, have kept the issue exalted. They have cut through the specious arguments, the sentiments for mercy, and the reasoning for compromise, and have accomplished a fine dramatic statement of moral probity. They use their motion picture to clarify and communicate a stirring, sobering message to the world.
The bulk of the action in this film at the focal point of the philosophical conflict is in the courtroom at Nuremberg. This is not a drama of a familiar, fundamental clash or of a hammering prosecutor and an obdurate lawyer for the defense. We have an American judge who is the symbol of legalistic fair play and the arbiter of the rights of man. It is the Judge who is being judged in this trial.
As the case progresses, the film relies r less on evidence than argument to ignite the explosive ideas. There is one poignant German witness, played touchingly by Montgomery Clift to testify to his sterilization on the order of one of the judges on trial. There is a fat young housewife that Judy Garland makes amazingly real to tell a horrifying tale of trumped-up charges of “racial contamination” against an elderly Jew.
Things really get going when Richard Widmark as the American colonel prosecuting the case strikes boldly and with flashing indignation at the character of the men on trial and their defense is flung back with firmness by their counsel, performed masterfully by Maximilian Schell. It is in these fiery exchanges that the drama comes alive and the judge, played superbly by Spencer Tracy, is challenged most tryingly.
The three-hour movie is a bit overlong but because of its length it is able to address such complex and controversial issues such as global culpability for Hitler’s rise to power. As I said, this is a fictionalized account of one such Nuremberg Trial set long after high profile Nazis such as Hermann Goring, Albert Speer, and Rudolf Hess have been sentenced or committed suicide. Instead, Republican Chief Judge Dan Heywood (Spencer Tracy) arrives at Nuremberg to sit in judgment of Nazi judges, including Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a revered legal and constitutional scholar many Germans believe shouldn’t be on trial at all.
As the Cold War emerges in the background and as the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia and tensions flair in Berlin, Heywood and prosecuting attorneys like Colonel Lawson (Richard Widmark) are pressured to go easy on a people whose proximity to the rising Iron Curtain becomes essential to the free world’s defense strategy. In other words, they are asked to politicize their verdicts just as the German judges on trial had been pressured 15 years earlier.
The case has many ramifications, as demonstrated by brilliant defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). “Who is the braver man”, he asks, “one who flees Germany with the rise of the Third Reich, or the man who stays to try and serve his country’s best interests?” While judges like Janning admittedly ordered the sterilization of political undesirables, he is also shown to have personally saved the lives of others at his own peril.
And if Germany is guilty, what about the American industrialists who profited in rebuilding Germany’s military might, or Winston Churchill, who praised Hitler’s leadership as late as 1938? These are the questions that give the film its purpose and its teeth.
Nothing is cut-and-dried, and screenwriter Abby Mann gives even minor characters such as Haywood’s aide (William Shatner, in one of his first film roles) and servants (Virginia Christine and Ben Wright) extraordinary depth. We see that ultimately, nationalism proves Germany’s undoing as a whole, and for these the judges who knew better and who were in a position to challenge Hitler, it is their willingness to deny justice in the name of expediency and their “country’s best interests.”
The film has incredible talent, with no less than four Oscar-nominated performances. Spencer Tracy is superb here and he is effortlessly expressive. Montgomery Clift, in one of his last roles, appears in just one long scene, but it’s quite extraordinary. As Rudolph Petersen, a victim of sterilization, Clift is unnervingly, harrowingly authentic. If he had not been a stat in Hollywood, we might think that he had been picked off the streets. Judy Garland is fantastic quite as Irene Hoffman, a German woman falsely convicted of illegal sexual relations with an old man, a Jew, who had been a friend of the family for years.
All three were rightly nominated for Oscars, but the only actor to win the award for “Judgment at Nuremberg” was Maximilian Schell, who is never less than riveting as the mercurial, yet somehow humanist defense attorney.
Some have accused Richard Widmark of being one-note as prosecuting attorney Lawson, but his single-minded swaggering, as it turns out, is dramatically justified. Of the leading cast, only Burt Lancaster, in inadequate makeup, is a disappointment. He’s good but miscast, in a role better served by an actor less familiar to audiences. Marlene Dietrich is also excellent in an uncomfortable role she knew all too well: the German trying to come to terms with a simultaneous love and shame for her country.
Kramer’s direction gives his top-drawer cast plenty of room, occasionally punching their scenes with interesting camera work that frequently circles actors during long stretches of dialogue with 360-degree tracking shots. Kramer uses the background to emphasize particular lines of dialogue, or to link characters to one another. He also seems to be one of the first to use the zoom as an aesthetic device. The film uses a marvelous device to get around the language barrier. In early scenes the Germans speak German and the Americans speak English. Everyone listens to translations on headphones from simultaneous interpreters shown behind a glass wall. Kramer’s camera slowly rises up above the level of the glass, and in a flash-zoom on Maximilian Schell, in mid-sentence his speech suddenly switches from German to English. In other words, German characters continue to speak in German, only we the audience hear all the dialogue in English. The effect is so seamless, one suspects, that many watching the film will not even notice what has happened.
The film makes good use of Nuremberg locations, and Ernest Gold’s score, mostly adaptations of military marches and folk songs (“Lili Marlene” is shrewdly worked into one scene with Dietrich) is very effective.
The poster for the film has five different people listed above Maximilian Schell, including Judy Garland, who really only has three scenes in the film. Yet, it was Schell, in the end, who won the Oscar as Best Actor. In Hollywood, stars are billed as stars and no one had heard of Schell before this film. Spencer Tracy, on the other hand, was a bone fide star, who seemed to be in the Best Actor race every year, whether he deserved to or not. Most of the time it was not. This is a perfect example. He does a perfectly serviceable job as the lead judge in a later stage of the Nuremberg trials, judging Nazi judges and determining their culpability in the crimes of the Third Reich. But his performance, just kind of the old man, wandering along through Nuremberg, surveying the damage done to the city and the country by the war and by the trials, also serves to illustrate the basic problems of the film.
As I stated, the length of the film is a problem and I understand the reason for it being so long was the director’s idea to see everything through Spencer Tracy’s eyes. I think it would have been so much better to concentrate on the trial and the courtroom where the best performances take place. To remind you we have Schell’s magnificent performance, the righteous indignation of Richard Widmark, the haunting, stylistic performance of Montgomery Clift, the tragic performance of Judy Garland. While the screenplay somehow managed to win the Oscar (which isn’t as bad as the fact that this film which is it is the main problem. It wants to do too many things and go too many places.
We don’t have films of this caliber any more and we don’t have films with rosters of stars as this one. It is not a film that is easy to forget. I still watch it at least once a year and I remain mesmerized by the performances.