Judgment at Nuremberg

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Mar 06, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Judgment at Nuremberg feels at once incredibly dated and incredibly present. Released in 1961, just over a decade after the Nuremberg Trials, the full extent of crimes in Nazi Germany and the culpability of the German citizenry could not have been completely known. Save for a few scenes, however, the film is more interested in the incremental steps tyrants achieve to gain a hold over democratic country. Thus, with 2018’s Bluray release during a time of rampant American and Western European nationalism, what sticks out is how each step, purportedly motivated by “national interests”, must be partially abetted by good men.

In making these observations, screenwriter Abby Mann is less interested in exploring the morality of genocidal maniacs than those who could have stopped them early on: the judges. The film puts four (fictional) judges under the microscope, ranging from an ardent Nazi sympathizer to an old, stoic Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), an internationally-renowned legal scholar who is as equally disdainful of the Third Reich as he is with what he considers a puppet court. He is defended by a young German lawyer (Maximilian Schell), who considers the old man a hero and innocent of any wrongdoing. Innocent because, as a student of justice, he believes a judge’s role to society is to educate a nation’s laws regardless of the government.

That question is central to the film: to what extent can a judge reasonably be expected to check a tyrannical government? The prosecuting attorney -- a US Army Colonel who helped liberate concentration camps -- holds a firm position that allowing injustice makes the judges complicit. He points to one particular case where Judge Janning enacted a death sentence upon an individual they knew to be innocent. This proves surprisingly difficult with no living witnesses and few willing to testify against fellow Germans.

Overseeing the trial is an Allied tribunal headed by Judge Dan Haywood, our vehicle into the film, played by Spencer Tracy. During the trial, he’s stoic and professional, perhaps wary about enacting victor’s justice. Away from the trial, he receives so much warmth and kindness that he simply can’t believe the balance of German citizens were complicit in genocide. Perhaps they truly didn’t know what was happening? But after overseeing months testimony about unspeakable crimes sharing the common refrain of, “But I didn’t know,” an exasperated Haywood sarcastically observes that no one in Germany must have knew anything.

Though Judge Janning is silent throughout the trial, it’s clear he has a growing respect for the underlying justice of the proceedings, as well as a growing shame of his lawyer attempts to acquit him on legal minutia. After his lawyer berates a witness brave enough to testify, an ashamed Janning speaks up, confessing to the crimes in a gripping monologue that explains how he, like his peers, succumbed to nationalism. While sentencing the judges, Haywood marvels at how, “under the stress of a national crisis, even extraordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination.”

Stanley Kramer made a career in message films, and Nuremberg is probably his third most famous after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and his adaptation of Inherit the Wind. While the former has aged incredibly poorly, like Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind presents an interesting crossroads in human history and extracts the human nature behind the opposing forces. After Inherit the Wind’s vigorous trial results in a progressive victory but the death of a foe, the film takes a moment to ponder the cost of such bitter disagreements.

Judgment at Nuremberg is less forgiving. After an imprisoned Janning yearns to talk to Judge Haywood, a person he has come to respect, he pleads for the judge’s understanding in a powerful exchange:

Ernst Janning: "Those people, those millions of people... I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it. You must believe it!"

Judge Haywood: "Herr Janning, it "came to that" the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."


Author rating: 8/10

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