Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Stanley Kramer
Run Time
3 hours
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5
Stanley Kramer Revisited

Not rated. Running time: 3 hours 6  min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Isaiah 5:20

 This review was written as a companion piece to my review of the TNT film Nuremberg. I was especially interested in how what was going on in the world affected the way the filmmakers approached the subject.

 Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized account of the war crimes trial holds up very well, with the criticism made then still valid–it’s a very talky movie—but then at a trial words are very, very important! It begins in a strange way–several minutes of dark screen (don’t touch the monitor controls!) as we hear a Nazi marching song. Then we see the huge stadium where Hitler stirred his followers to follow his evil way. A huge concrete Swastika looms over the building, and then is blown up.

Spencer Tracey, in this fictionalized story, is the newly arrived chief judge Dan Haywood. Unlike the current Nuremberg, this is a trial of second echelon Nazi leaders (indeed one of them was not a member of the Nazi party), and Judge Haywood is a long way from being a member of the Supreme Court. He has just been voted out of office in the obscure district in Maine where he had presided.

Judge Haywood soon encounters the typical German denial of knowledge of war crimes when he meets the couple who are to be his servants. When he questions them about how they lived during the Hitler days, they reply hesitantly, declaring that they knew nothing, being just ordinary people. Later, when he meets the former owner of the villa he is quartered in, Madame Bertholt, he finds that she, too, shares that attitude, though tinged with great bitterness because her high-ranking husband had been condemned and executed the year before. She affirms that he was a military man and therefore knew nothing of the crimes committed by the SS.

Richard Widmark plays the chief prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson, who will accept no such excuses. Believing that virtually all Germans are guilty, he zealously presses the prosecution of the current judges on trial. One of them, played with quiet dignity by Burt Lancaster, is Ernst Janning, an international jurist whose book Judge Haywood reads in wonder and disbelief–how could such a fine mind be so swayed by someone like Hitler? This the American will never fully understand, even as the facts are set forth in damning order by the prosecution.

The defense of the Nazis is just as vigorous as the prosecution. Maximilian Schell, in the role of Hans Rolfe, which won him the Best Actor Academy Award in 1961, wants to dispel the aura of guilt clinging to his countrymen. He points out that the Allies also committed atrocities–Dresden and Hiroshima–and that their society too is racist, as its treatment of Negroes shows.

Director Kramer uses a fluid camera to keep our eyes occupied as the torrent of words pours forth from the characters. Thus this is far from a static film, and the ideas certainly engage the mind and heart. The film reveals much about the time in which it is made, even as the current Nuremberg does. The Cold War between the Soviets and the West threatened to erupt into a shooting war when Berlin was blockaded and the Americans, refusing to bow to this, started the Berlin Airlift. If war were to breakout, it was important that Germany be united on our side. The continued prosecution of the German prisoners would only stir up animosity against the Americans. Thus the general heading up the Berlin Airlift suggests to Col. Lawson that he go easier on the Nazis. Judge Haywood also comes under pressure, all this adding to the drama.

After the trial, when Rolfe comes to Judge Haywood with a request that he visit Ernst Janning, the lawyer tells him that in five years all the prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment will be free. The film ends with the note that this has come to pass, almost an indictment of societal indifference in 1961, and also perhaps a plea that the crimes of those who killed so many not be forgotten.

The film is filled with powerful scenes, with major stars Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift movingly representing those victimized by the injustice of the Nazi judicial system. But for me the most telling one is that which has stayed with me for almost 40 years. Judge Haywood visits Janning in his prison cell, where the German jurist in effect is asking for absolution. He has despised the Nazis, then and now, keeping aloof from them. He tells Haywood that he really did not know of the millions who died in the concentration camps. But Haywood will not let him off, this man whose rulings in the early Thirties supported the Nazi laws. “Those people, those millions of people, I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.” Judge Haywood’s parting words are, “It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”

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