Tonight's Saturday Night Cinema is Stanley Kramer's masterpiece, Judgment at Nuremberg. The blockbuster cast includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, and Judy Garland.
"An eloquent snapshot of the way that the ground was shifting--in both the Nuremberg of 1948 and the Tinsel Town of 1961."
After the end of World War II, the world gradually became aware of the full extent of the war crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich. In 1948, a series of trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany, by an international tribunal, headed by American legal and military officials, with the intent of bringing to justice those guilty of crimes against humanity. However, by that time most of the major figures of the Nazi regime were either dead or long missing, and in the resulting legal proceedings American judges often found themselves confronting the question of how much responsibility someone held who had "just followed orders." Judgment at Nuremberg is a dramatized version of the proceedings at one of these trials, in which Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is overseeing the trials of four German judges -- most notably Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer) -- accused of knowingly sentencing innocent men to death in collusion with the Nazis. Representing the defense is attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), while prosecuting the accused is U.S. Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark). As the trial goes on, both the visiting Americans and their reluctant German hosts often find themselves facing the legacy of the war, and how both of their nations have been irrevocably changed by it. Judgment at Nuremberg also features notable supporting performances by Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift. Originally written and produced as a play for television, the screen version of Judgment at Nuremberg was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, with Maximilian Schell and Abby Mann taking home Oscars for (respectively) Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
From The Guardian:
The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals carried out by Allied forces against military and administrative officials and private contractors of Nazi Germany. They took place between 1945 and 1949.
It's 1948, and American judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) arrives in Nuremberg. "Hitler is gone, Goebbels is gone, Goering is gone – committed suicide before they could hang him," he says. "Now we're down to the business of judging the doctors, businessmen and judges. Some people think they shouldn't be judged at all." The most attention-grabbing of the Nuremberg trials was that of the major war criminals in 1945-46. This film is about the judges' trial, which actually took place over the course of 1947. The date has been changed for a reason. Here, the trial is juxtaposed with the Czech coup of 1948 and the beginning of the cold war.
During the trial, which has been fictionalised, four defendants face three North American judges. They are defended by a German (Maximilian Schell, who won the best actor Oscar for his performance; Tracy was also nominated). They are prosecuted by a fire-breathing American (Richard Widmark), traumatised by what he saw in the concentration camps. Abby Mann's screenplay tackles some of the most sensitive questions about one of the most sensitive events in history: the Nazi holocaust. How far did responsibility go? Were high-ranking officials only obeying orders, and if so was that reasonable? Did ordinary Germans know what was going on? Could they have done something to stop it?
It's easy to accuse most historical films of simplification – they usually have to convey a complicated story in a limited runtime. Not this one. Only one character in Judgment at Nuremberg comes across as straightforwardly bad: unrepentant defendant Emil Hahn (played by Werner Klemperer, a real-life refugee from Nazi Germany). Other than him, the film doesn't make things easy for the audience.
Judge Haywood's balance is thrown when he meets the enigmatic Frau Berthold (Marlene Dietrich). She is the widow of a Nazi general who has been executed following an earlier trial. "We hated Hitler," she tells him. "I want you to know that. And he hated us … That's why it's so ironic, what happened … It was political murder. You can see that, can't you?" Her luminous performance stands out in a film filled with great acting – including Burt Lancaster as Nazi judge Ernst Janning, struggling painfully with his demons. Look out also for Montgomery Clift as a victim of enforced sterilisation and Judy Garland as an Aryan woman accused of having an affair with a Jewish man (a fictionalisation of the Katzenberger case of 1942). Whether as a result of their real-life troubles or not, both Clift and Garland are extraordinarily effective playing desperate, broken, vulnerable people.
Judgment at Nuremberg provoked controversy at the time of its release, from cinematic and political critics alike. "People asked how could I, an American, try to rekindle German guilt?" said director Stanley Kramer. "Well, I said that it would indeed have been better if the Germans had made it, but the fact is they didn't. So I did."
One of the reasons why the film stands up well after 50 years is that Kramer also resisted making his own compatriots the heroes. Preoccupied with the Czech coup and the cold war, an American general joins those encouraging Haywood to prioritise reconciliation over justice in the name of patriotism – a supposed virtue that does not emerge at all well from this movie. Indeed, the awkward and compromising position of American occupiers resonates even more deeply half a century after the film was made.
Judgment at Nuremberg doesn't stick precisely to the facts of the judges' trial, but its fictionalisations are intelligent. It raises complex questions, resists easy answers, and leaves the viewer keen to think and know more. For those reasons, it's an exceptionally good historical film – and a haunting one.