Classic Movie Review: Judgement At Nuremburg (1961)

Posted: November 26, 2016 in Drama
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judgement-at-nuremburg

Three years after World War II had ended, the Nuremburg trials were ongoing, by this time many of the infamous people responsible for Nazi war crimes were either tried or were dead.  The focus of this trial involved seeking justice against those in the German judiciary for allowing Germans to be sterilized for being mentally challenged or allowing Germans to be jailed for simply associating with Jews.  The German justices on trial were Emil Hahn, (Werner Klemperer) Werner Lampe, (Torben Mayer) Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt) and esteemed jurist Dr. Ernst Janning. (Burt Lancaster)  The Chief Judge hearing the trial was American Dan Haywood. (Spencer Tracy)  The defense attorney was German Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) and the prosecutor was American Colonel Tad Lawson. (Richard Widmark)

The defense strategy was to say that the German judges were simply following laws that they didn’t put in place, and also that these judges were unaware that their rulings would lead to the barbarity that was the Holocaust.  The prosecution strategy was to put on witnesses like Rudolph Peterson (Montgomery Clift) a mentally challenged German, who had been sterilized by Justice Hofstetter, and Ernst Janning.  The prosecution also put on a witness named Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland) who was found guilty of consorting with a Jew in the Feldenstein case.  The decision was handed down by Ernst Janning. Colonel Lawson also reminded the judges or the horrific human toll of the Holocaust.  There were actually Americans who thought they were being pragmatic who argued that Lawson should drop the cases against the Germans to enlist their support against the growing power of the Soviets. What does Colonel Lawson do?  Does Judge Haywood get to decide the case against the Germans?

Judgement At Nuremburg is a riveting drama, the central storyline is the trial of these jurists, and the question can they be held responsible for the horrors that followed.  The emotional aspects of the story occur when people like Rudolph Peterson and Irene Hoffman take the stand, the viewer can really see the effect that the Nazis had on the lives of ordinary Germans. Finally, and graphically, there is a stark reminder of the brutality of the Nazi regime towards millions of Jews.  The one aspect of the story that doesn’t work well is the burgeoning friendship between Judge Haywood and a German widow, Mrs.  Berthold.  The writers obviously didn’t want the whole movie to be about the trial, but this particular storyline had no real purpose.

The acting is spellbinding.  There was one soliloquy by Burt Lancaster that is chillingly familiar to the polital climate in the U.S. today.  Lancaster doesn’t have a lot to say, but all his lines in this movie are powerful. Montgomery Clift was amazing as the mentally challenged man who was forcibly sterilized, the pain he conveyed in this role was palpable.  It was a standout performance.  Richard Widmark was also outstanding as the Army prosecutor fighting not only the German defense attorney but American generals fighting for leniency.  Maximillian Schell is also very good as the German defense attorney, pleading with the three judge panel not to judge all Germans with the same standard, and trying to retain some pride for the German people after a ruinous war.  Schell is clearly a broken man after some scenes and shows it.  Judy Garland shows a lot more range in this movie than in her child acting roles, she is hurt deeply by  the insinuation that her relationship with Feldenstein was more than a friendship.  Garland’s emotions are clearly on display here, even as she tries to hide them.  Spencer Tracy was more laid back and understated. Marlene Dietrich is a great actress, but she is given very little to do in this movie, and I suspect that she was given the role because she was German, but unlike fellow German Schell, Dietrich’s role was of little consequence.

Stanley Kramer directed this film, and he was known for his “message movies” in the 1960’s.  He directed The Defiant Ones, Ship of Fools, Inherit The Wind, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The message of this movie is if people don’t learn from history, or forgive the worst crimes in history, history will repeat itself.  Kramer shows the devastation visually, in the bombed out rubble of post-war Germany, and the human devastation of the Holocaust.  He could have helped the pacing by trimming Tracy and Dietrich’s roles a bit, it is a long movie, over three hours,but most of it holds the viewer’s attention like a vice grip.  He gets great performances, but this was an A-list cast, so was it Kramer or was it these veteran actors? Either way, Judgement At Nuremburg is well-worth watching.

Judgement At Nuremburg:  Judge for Yourself

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