IMDB #182 Judgment at Nuremberg

The wheel, it goes around- one entry ago I was astounded to discover a Stanley Kubrick film shorter than 90 minutes, and so today we discuss the 3:07 courtroom epic Judgment at Nuremberg.

The 1961 classic takes its inspiration from the real-life Judges' Trial at the Nuremberg Military Tirbunal in 1947. A weighty, philosophical film- the importance of the issues at its core led and all-star cast to accept pay-cuts to particpate.

The Key Players:

Director Stanley Kramer is a heavyweight behind most of Hollywood's quintessential "message" movies. He produced or directed The Wild Ones (motorcycle gangs), On The Beach (nuclear war), Inherit The Wind (Scopes trial), and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (interracial relationships) and was a nine-time Oscar nominee.

Get ready, because this cast is packed and the stately Burt Lancaster is the only one we've seen before.

Spencer Tracy, 2 for 9 in the leading actor category (a record for nominations shared with Laurence Olivier, is an all-time great we'll probably meet again. Marlene Dietrich was a German-born star most famous for her 30s work with Josef von Sternberg and Billy Wilder's Witness For The Prosecution.

Maximilian Schell (The Pedestrian, Ressurectio Blues) and Richard Widmark (Kiss Of Death, How The West Was Won) carry heavy loads as the dueling prosecutors, key witnesses are portrayed by Montgomery Clift (A Place In The Sun) and Judy Garland, and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out a young William Shatner in a minor part.

Click for More...

The Story:

1947, Nuremberg: Four judges who served in the Third Reich are on trial for crimes against humanity: Ernst Janning (Lancaster), an esteemed author of the Widmark Consitution and former Minister of Justice, is among them. Their fates are to be decided by an American Tribunal, of which aged judge Dan Haywood (Tracy) is the senior member.

An eight month trial commences: a Hans Rolfe (Schell) argues passionately and skillfully for the defense- a believer in the need for continued German diginity, and an admirer of Jannings' work, he raises valid points here and there: is forced sterilization so bad, if US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is for eugenics? Are the defendants any more to blame than the world leaders that turned a blind eye to Hitler's power grab in the early going?

Arguing for the prosecution, just as passionately and even louder, is the bullwark Col. Tad Lawson (Widmark)- having already successfully convicted some war criminals, he seems driven by particular memories of liberating concentration camps (he even brings footage to show) to be as strident and unyielding as possible.

As evidence in specific charges, a forcibly sterilized man named Rudolph Peterson (Clift) and a woman whose alleged Jewish lover was executed named Irene Hoffman (Garland) are called to testify- their cases having been presided over by one or the other of the defendants- neither trial had been even close to fair.

As a backdrop to all this, Judge Haywood gets to know Mrs. Bertholt (Dietrich), the widow of an executed Nazi general whose former home he's using as living quarters. They both see in the other redeeming qualities to a people they had once known only as enemies- the knowledge of the German people of the atrocities and the line of indivdual culpability are continually brought into question.

Finally, as Rolfe essentially attempts to retry a nervous Irene Hoffman by badgering her about her supposed dailliance with a Jew, Janning stands up to stop the proceedings and make a statement. Breaking a movie-long silence, he admits his guilt and complacency in going along with the Third Reich- he had thought the growing intolerance a passing phase that was acceptable for the stability and unity the movement provided, until he realized it had become the way of life.

The Artistry:

You know, it's funny- at the beginning of the recent Nazi-drama Valkyrie, the film makes an early switch from German to English as a way of signifying "Hey, these characters are all speaking German, but you're going to hear it in English. Get it?"

I thought it was sort of a clunky transition (why not just have it English the whole time?), but Judgment at Nuremberg does it a step better: the trial is set up with interpreters and headphones, UN-style, and Widmark is even reminded to speak slowly for the interpreter to keep up. But then Schell begins his opening remarks in German before the camera ZOOMS in close and he's now in accented English! But whenever he, or another German character speak for the remainder of the film, the Americans still have to listen to the earpieces to get the translation. I got used to it, but still, why not just pretend for the sake of movies that everyone knew English?

Anyway, Stanley Kramer is anything but subtle- important zooms are prevalent during big speeches, almost underlining certain lines. This breaks up some slow-revolves during testimony, but otherwise the camerawork is stagy and to the point. The setting of post-war Nuremberg is evoked nicely, with mangled concrete rubble sharing the streets with scaffolding for rebuilding efforts, and the singing from German beer halls echoing through the town. The score is minimal, though my copy of the DVD had long "OVERTURE" and "EXIT MUSIC" pieces bookending the film itself.

Judgment is all about the script and the delivery thereof, though- and the cast is largely up to the part. Tracy is mostly a quiet audience surrogate until the very end, but Widmark and Schell make the courtroom dynamic a lot less stodgy than it could be. Lancaster seems to jump between defiant pride and deep regret with just his eyes, and the German Dietrich conveys the wounded insistence of the country's nobility.

I was a little surprised a the film's abivalence about the justice that would be served by convicting the four judges- not that it condoned the Holocaust at all (and indeed the real-life footage of concentration camps was considerably shocking for mainstream cinema at the time). It just acknowledged the reality that you couldn't try an entire people, and the line drawn between those directly responsible and those that stood by is impossible to determine. The film also considers the larger context- military types hint to both the judge and prosecutor that lighter sentences would help curry favor with the German people in the coming Cold War.


In a fiery speech, Haywood delivers the 2-1 Tribunal verdict: all four men are found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Janning asks to see Haywood before he leaves, and tells him he repects the decision. He admits, nearly tearful, that he never thought it would come to the millions of bodies seen on the films.

Haywood replies that "it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to die you knew to be innocent."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Slightly higher, even if I might not watch it again- is that fair? It was a breezy three hours, and as heavy-handed as the courtroom theatrics were, they were surprisingly balanced and thought-provoking.

The Legacy:

Out of four acting nominations, fifth-billed Schell would win for Leading Actor over Tracy, while Garland and Clift would lose out in Supporting for their respective scenery-gnawing. Abby Mann would win for adapting his own novel, amid nominations for Picture, Editing, Art Direction, Kramer, and Best Picture.

It was adapted for the stage in 2001 (with Schell in the Lancaster role), and AFI considers it the tenth-best courtroom drama ever.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

I would go watch this clip (embedding disabled) of Schell's opening remarks. It's when you realize that even if the outcome of the trial is predetermined, the trial itself is going to be a dogfight.

Leftover Thoughts:

-Near the end, Schell's German character speaks directly to Tracy's American character but I didn't know if he was speaking German or English!

-Someday I'll have to write a breakdown of why I respected this film but detested The Reader- there's a valid reason, I promise.

Coming Up...

181. The Incredibles

180. The Princess Bride

179. The Night Of The Hunter

0 Response to "IMDB #182 Judgment at Nuremberg"

Powered by Blogger