This post is in conjunction with Film Forum’s Burt Lancaster tribute. Find out more and purchase tickets here.
There are certain real-world events Hollywood is quick to capitalize on and others they take their time with (the Vietnam War in the ’70s-’80s). Judgment at Nuremberg is a landmark film for its honest, no-holds barred discussion of the Holocaust where, after the dust settled, the US and its treaties and coddling of certain members of the Nazi party were seen as just as complicit as the Germans.
Director Stanley Kramer tackles several sensitive subjects with a cadre of stars anxious for a seat. How did people not know what was going on in Germany, and when they did know how did they respond? These questions rule the day at Judgment at Nuremberg, and Kramer’s answer is “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is how the new information controls the future?”
After the close of WWII, an American tribunal is set up in Nuremberg, Germany to prosecute a group of German judges for war crimes they perpetrated during the Holocaust. American chief judge, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) grapples with the information discovered in the case, and also how an entire country let the murder of six million Jews happen right under their nose.
Stanley Kramer never shied away from difficult subject matter in his directing; many events he captured in his lens as they were happening (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released knee-deep in the Civil Rights Movement). His films are definitely “message pictures,” but the messages are always meant to appeal to the uninformed.
Released right after the final judge convicted in the Nuremberg trials was set free, there’s an overall tone of anger, frustration, and general puzzlement. How could the German people continue to deny their knowledge of what happened in places like Auschwitz? Could the Germans ever prove they weren’t “all monsters?” And where did the US, the pillar of tolerance, stand in the midst of it all?
Kramer condemns equally; chastising the Germans wholeheartedly, but also touching on the US’ desire for leniency on the judges in order to use the Germans as allies against the Soviets. There’s also lengthy discussion from Maximilian Schell’s attorney, Hans Rolfe, about the US’ treaties allowing Hitler to come to power, engagements with Joesph Stalin, and our own dabbling in eugenics.
Heroes and villains don’t exist here. Even when the film is focused on the Nazi atrocities, the audience must remember these are judges on trial; judges whose job description is to carry out the laws of their country. “Judges judging judges” might sound boring, but the courtroom acts as both court of public opinion and the literal interpretation of the law. Several characters question the legitimacy of the trials themselves, a worthwhile proposition. Why is the US the one leading this court? Why is this not an international effort? Added alongside the US Senators asking Haywood for leniency the entire foundation for the Nuremberg trials screams of political pandering for a good cause.
Abby Mann’s multilayered script, based on an adaptation of his own version of the same film for Playhouse 90 in 1959, touches on everything sensitively but forcefully. The courtroom procedural allows for introspective thinking and dueling perspectives to create a three-dimensional sequence of events. While the audience knows who to “root” for, with all the characters flawed in their own ways there’s no true guilt or innocence; no one’s hands are completely clean.
The script has enough food for thought on its own, but the cast is a decadent buffet with several standout performances. Tracy and Burt Lancaster play political opposites inhabiting the same profession as Haywood and Dr. Ernst Janning, respectively. Tracy reteamed with Kramer for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World playing a similar character beaten down by the world.
Haywood is given more to chew over than Tracy’s character in his other Kramer film, and Tracy’s face holds all the horror and sadness for humanity. How can one remain impartial when so much is known? Lancaster stays mute for almost two hours of the film, leaving him to do even more facial acting. He refuses to believe the US’ legitimacy of the trial, yet when he finally screams “I’m aware” about the atrocities it’s such a wave of catharsis.
Two other actors were on the downhill skids when they took cameo roles in the movie. A few critics have called them “special guest victims,” but that’s a true disservice to the exemplary acting on display. Montgomery Clift had difficulties working with Kramer, and was notorious for not remembering his lines which aids in his performance as the, presumed, feeble-minded Rudolph Petersen.
Clift’s ad-libbing amplifies the character’s fear and nervousness of proving to Rolfe and the others that he is feeble-minded, but that’s never a justification for the sterilization his character endures. When he presents a battered picture of his mother, asking the jury “Was she feeble-minded,” you feel the man’s hostility and terror; he’s still being terrorized years later.
Also coming off a slump was Judy Garland, seven years past her turn in A Star is Born. Her Irene Hoffman lacks the pathos and authenticity Clift espouses, but Garland’s physical transformation – helped by her calamitous private life – illustrates the struggles her character has had in the ensuing years. Garland’s character sets off the chain of events that continue throughout the entire movie. As Haywood says, the impetus for the Holocaust came “the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent,” which Garland’s character plays into.
Maximilian Schell won the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Hans Rolfe – a rarity for a performance that’s billed fifth – and does he slam it out of the park. The difficulty playing with his character is obvious; he’s stuck defending people who’ve already been deemed the worst of the worst by several nations. He provides the best defense he can, but even he grapples with the hypocrisy of democracy. Schell’s good looks could have turned this into a smarmy, pretty boy role, but he uses that to craft a character that’s rather green in his defense; this is the greatest challenge of his career, a defining moment.
There’s too much praise for Judgment at Nuremberg. It’s a fundamental, landmark film that lives up to the hype established. The acting is astounding, the story is historically significant, and director Stanley Kramer keeps things concise and questioning. The recent Blu-ray release from Twilight Time is the best way to watch it and includes a taped conversation between screenwriter Mann and Schell, a featurette, a tribute to Stanley Kramer, isolated soundtrack and theatrical trailer.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.