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Review: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Directed by: Stanley Kramer | 179 minutes | , , | Actors: , , Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, , , , Ed Binns, , , , William Shatner, Kenneth MacKenna, , , , Ben Wright, Joseph Bernard, , Karl Swenson, Howard Caine, Otto Waldis, , , Bernard Kates, Oscar Beregi ., Asher Brauner, Sheila Bromley, ,

The Nuremberg Trials were held in 1945 and 1946 by a specially created tribunal by the Allies against the leaders of Nazi Germany, accused of war crimes. But the conviction of the political and military leaders was not there yet. That is why, from 1947 onwards, the bureaucrats were also summoned who put into practice the policy outlined by Hitler and co. Among them the judges, who without murmuring condemned innocent people to death just because they had other political or religious views. Were they as guilty of crimes against humanity as the evil genius himself or were they only dutifully carrying out their duties? And if they are also guilty, then who was not guilty? The entire German people, who claimed to know nothing and looked the other way when Jews and other “undesirables” were stripped of their rights? And what about world powers like the US, which had allowed Nazi Germany to militarize? The legendary court drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” from 1961 is about this tricky theme.

Veteran American Chief Justice Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has been appointed to chair the criminal case against four Nazi-era judges. Haywood is an intelligent, respected man whose integrity is beyond question. Colonel Lawson (Richard Widmark), an American determined to make the defendants pay for the atrocities rife during the Nazi regime, is the prosecution. In court he comes to stand diametrically opposed to Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), the passionate lawyer of the four judges, who puts forward patriotism as the main hobby horse. The most prominent defendant is exasperated Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a respected lawyer and founder of democracy in his homeland. In his quest for justice, Haywood has to cope with countless emotions, including through testimonials from the retarded Rudolph Petersen (Montgomery Clift) and Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland). And also the distinguished widow of a former Nazi officer, Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), gives him new insights into how Germany and its people were able to allow the mass torture and slaughter of the Jews to happen.

The screenplay of “Judgment at Nuremberg” was written by Abby Mann, who took inspiration from the actual trials. Stanley Kramer, who a year earlier demonstrated with “Inherit the Wind” (1960) that he could make a compelling courtroom drama, took a seat in the director’s chair. The offers enough cinematographic highlights; what about the scene at the beginning of the where Dan Haywood visits the place where Adolf Hitler spoke to the crowds with a frightening intensity (seen in detail in Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935))? The great strength of the , in addition to a very strong script and astonishing acting performances, is that Kramer creates an exceptionally nuanced image. Both the point of view of the Germans, who want nothing more than to tear this black page from their history book and rebuild their devastated country as quickly as possible, and of the Allies who cannot and will not just put aside the suffering of six million innocent victims. , are discussed in detail. Thus, the viewer is also put on the spot; if you were in the shoes of the judge, what would you decide? The wonderful way in which this evokes the question of guilt is unparalleled.

When you have so many big names together, the risk that the film will become a star vehicle is lurking. Fortunately, thanks to the tight direction of the ever underappreciated Stanley Kramer, that doesn’t happen. The best roles belong to Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell and Montgomery Clift, all three of whom earned Oscar nomination. Tracy convincingly portrays the distinguished judge in such a way that you immediately gain sympathy for him no matter what his decision ultimately becomes. Schell is overwhelming as the ‘devil’s advocate’, who deeply wants the defendants to be punished for their actions but still wants to do his job as well as possible (thus mirroring Janning, who during the Nazi regime in fact thought his own too but did what was his expected). Schell was rightly awarded an Oscar. Montgomery Clift is what the English call mesmerizing as beautifully as the mentally retarded witness Petersen. The fact that Clift was heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol at the time of the recordings (and had a lot of trouble remembering his lines) will only help his fragile performance in the saddle. Judy Garland – like Clift heavily under the influence of narcotics – also received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role. It was her first appearance in a movie since 1954 (“A Star is Born”). Widmark, Dietrich and Lancaster are fine, although the latter comes across as the initially stoic Janning a bit artificial.

In total, “Judgment at Nuremberg” won eleven Oscar nominations, two of which (Schell for best actor and Mann for best adapted screenplay). And rightly so, because this is a film that will keep you glued to the tube from start to finish. This is largely due to the strength of the theme; justice and injustice. Everyone must take responsibility for their actions, as this film shows once again. The amazing acting performances of Tracy, Schell and Clift in particular grab you by the throat and only let you go after three hours (because that’s how long “Judgment at Nuremberg” takes). By the way, three hours that are over before you realize it. This impressive look into the history of a torn country should be a must at any high school!

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