Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

Directed by Stanley Kramer

Written by Abby Mann

Starring: Spencer Tracy; Burt Lancaster; Richard Widmark; Marlene Dietrich; Maximillian Schell; Judy Garland; Montgomery Clift; William Shatner

One of the event movies of the early 1960s, Judgement at Nuremberg dramatized the trial of Nazi civil servants before an Allied tribunal. One of the first major Hollywood productions to show graphic imagery from the Holocaust, the film also raised questions about American racism, Germany's complex geopolitical role in the Cold War, and whether an entire society is to be condemned for having knowledge of the crimes against humanity being perpetuated by its government. 

With an all-star cast led by Spencer Tracy, who plays Chief Judge Dan Haywood, few actors could evoke moral authority better than Tracy. Maximillian Schell turned in an Oscar winning performance as defense counsel Hans Rolfe, defending his clients on the grounds it was unfair to hold them responsible for Nazi atrocities when the entire world enabled the Third Reich. In his opening statement he pointed out American jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes defended Eugenics programs, while not explicably stated the ingrained racism of American institutions. 

The year 1961 marked a high point in the Civil Rights Movement with Freedom Summer and the integration of the University of Mississippi. On the international front the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel brought the mentality and extent of Nazi atrocities, popularizing the term coined by Hannah Arendt. The world was just starting to come to terms with the Second World War, and the film situates itself in the era of rising public consciousness on these issues.  

Directed by Stanley Kramer who was known for making "message" movies like The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, all serving as a barometer of mainstream liberalism. Judgement at Nuremberg may be his best film for the quality of the acting, writing, and weight of the history being presented. For millions of people, it would be the first time they would view raw footage from the death camps. In addition to archival footage, Kramer used rapid camera movements and compelling close ups, one of the most cinematic trial films.

Abby Martin's script was originally written for Playhouse 90 which aired in 1959 (with censorship required by the TV network), and indeed the high points of the movie are the monologues. Burt Lancaster is memorable as legal scholar Ernst Janning who was on trial, delivering a speech attempting to defend his actions, including forced sterilizations and handing out death sentences, because of Germany's diminished condition before Hitler. Haywood delivers his own eloquent speeches defending the idea of justice. Montgomery Clift appeared as a man who underwent forced sterilization and Judy Garland as a woman who transgressed racial laws are also both effective.

The issues raised in Judgment at Nuremberg remain consequential over sixty years later. To what extent should a nation's people be held accountable for atrocities committed by its government? With authoritarianism once again fueling politics across the globe, have we learned anything from the Second World War and the Holocaust? Now Western nations struggling with their own pasts of colonialism, slavery, and racism, issues which fuel contemporary political discourse on the left and right, what does reconciliation of past injustices look like?

On the Unclear and Present Danger podcast John Ganz observed that Hitler wounded so badly that many of today's issues can be traced back to him. From the persistence of Nazi iconography utilized by white supremacists to the ongoing war in Gaza, the past remains present. There's been countless studies of why societies turn on each other and give in to their basest instincts. The common argument is that Germany's economic distress and humiliation following the First World War set the stage for Hitler, but also a failure of the entire nation-state system. 

Despite being didactic at times with a hint of post-war American triumphalism, if you've not seen Judgement at Nuremberg, it remains an essential film.

(Currently streaming for free on Tubi and Amazon Prime)