Judgment at Nuremberg


Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann, starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximillian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer and William Shatner. (1961, B&W): Based on writer Mann’s 1959 television play of the same name (with Schell in the same role as the German defense attorney for four German judges being tried for crimes against humanity in the post-WWII Nurmeberg trials), producer/director Kramer follows his standard all-star casting procedures with, for the most part, good-to-excellent results.

Tracy leads the cast as a Midwestern judge in charge of the three-judge panel hearing this particular trial. Clift and Garland, by this time tragic wrecks in their personal lives, stand out as victims of the judges’ decisions called upon to testify, while Dietrich plays the widow of a German officer and Lancaster the most famous judge to be tried. Shatner and Klemperer, still years away from TV fame on Star Trek and Hogan’s Heroes respectively, have small roles as an American officer and a German judge, also respectively.

The trial here focuses not on top-ranking Nazis and German military and civil authorities, but on the ‘second tier’ of decision-makers, specifically the judges who meted out the often fatal punishment for being racially or genetically ‘impure’ in the eyes of the highers-up. However, the trial here takes place in 1949, as the Soviet land blockade of Berlin, and their development of the atomic bomb, cause U.S. authorities to desire an end to prosecuting Nazi crimes in order to curry favour with the German people against the Red Menace.

Late-career Tracy is a study in naturalistic minimalism as an actor, his face and body language often doing the entire job of portraying the character’s thoughts about the proceedings. He was a marvelous, unshowy actor. Schell, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, is bombastic as the defense attorney — it almost seems more like a stage performance than one meant for the amplifying effects of film close-ups. Of course, it’s hard for a film with nearly two hours of action set in a courtroom not to seem stagey at times. Kramer keeps the film-making tricks to a minimum, relying primarily upon long takes and sudden close-ups to make his stylistic points.

I don’t think this is a great film — it’s a bit preachy, and falls victim a bit too much to telling rather than showing — but it is a riveting one, and a pretty intelligent one. And, as a big-budget three-hour drama with lots of talking and no action to speak of, the sort of film Hollywood simply doesn’t make any more. Highly recommended.

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