US Release Date: 12-19-1961
Directed by: Stanley Kramer
- Spencer Tracy, as
- Chief Judge Dan Haywood
- Burt Lancaster, as
- Dr. Ernst Janning
- Richard Widmark, as
- Col. Tad Lawson
- Marlene Dietrich, as
- Frau Bertholt
- Maximilian Schell, as
- Hans Rolfe
- Judy Garland, as
- Irene Wallner
- Montgomery Clift, as
- Rudolph Peterson
- Werner Klemperer, as
- Emil Hahn
- Howard Caine, as
- Irene's husband, Hugo Wallner
- William Shatner, as
- Capt. Harrison Byers
- Ben Wright, as
- Herr Halbestadt, Haywood's butler
- Virginia Christine as
- Mrs. Halbestadt - Haywood's Housekeeper
Judy Garland gets sworn in my William Shatner in Judgment at Nuremberg.
Judgment at Nuremberg is a three hour long, black & white courtroom drama dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. It had originated as an episode of the popular CBS anthology series Playhouse 90, broadcast on April 16, 1959. Director Stanley Kramer watched that show and thought it would make a great feature film. He was right.
He assembled an all-star cast (many of whom worked for far less than their usual salaries) to bring this thought provoking and disturbing look at the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, wherein four former Nazi judges were tried for their complicity in the most heinous acts ever perpetrated by a government against humanity. This was after the worst of the Nazi war criminals had been tried, sentenced and executed. These judges, or so the defense argues, were men that were merely carrying out the laws of their government and therefore were not guilty of committing any crimes.
Maximilian Schell plays Hans Rolfe, the defense attorney for the accused judges. He and Werner Klemperer were the only actors from the television version to be allowed to reprise their roles for the movie. For the honor Schell won the Best Actor Academy Award, beating out fellow cast mate Spencer Tracy in the process. With a billing of fifth in the cast list, he remains to this day, the lowest billed actor ever to win this award.
Judgment at Nuremberg was one of the first movies to deal with the Holocaust. It was filmed partially in both Nuremberg and Berlin. In one of the most controversial scenes in any mainstream movie of its day there is actual footage from Nazi concentration camps shown during one of the courtroom sessions. These include extremely graphic images of piles of naked corpses being bulldozed into a pit. When you consider the fact that this was 1961, and married couples still slept in separate beds on television, the audacity of Kramer in including these scenes cannot be overstated. These shocking images bring the reality of these unprecedented atrocities home and lend the movie an almost documentary like feel.
The cast boasts such impressive names as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Widmark in major roles. It is, however, two small roles by two Hollywood legends in the twilight's of their careers that steal the movie. Both Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift had seen better days when they were cast to play two Germans who take to the witness stand. Both of them had endured years of public battles with addiction and alcoholism and both would be dead before the end of the decade. They were each around 40 at the time but years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken their toll. Both look years older than their actual ages. But here for a few minutes of screen time they each got a chance to demonstrate to the world what the word talent looks like.
Clift plays a mentally unstable man that was sterilized by the Nazis. Garland plays an Aryan woman accused of having a sexual relationship with a much older Jewish man, which was against the law in Nazi Germany. They are both bundles of raw nerves and as such will break your heart. Garland and Clift each received an Oscar nomination in their respective supporting category, but neither would win.
Look for a baby-faced William Shatner as the captain that swears in each witness. He was still five years away from finding immortal fame as James T. Kirk. I'm sure he has some interesting anecdotes about working with all these Hollywood legends.
Judgment at Nuremberg is about as powerful and compelling as courtroom dramas get. Its subject matter makes it unforgettable. The superb cast only adds to its importance as an insightful look at how one of the darkest moments in human history took place. It's not concerned with the sadistic and psychotic people who actually killed those millions of innocent men, women and children.
It makes a more subtle and important point than that. It is concerned with the fundamental question of just how such acts were ever allowed in a civilized country. The majority of German citizens, as the movie points out, were upstanding, moral individuals and yet they stood complacently by while the most despicable atrocities in human history were being perpetrated on their fellow Germans. How is that possible? Judgment at Nuremberg should be required viewing for high school students everywhere.
Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Judgement at Nuremberg
Stanley Kramer begins this film with Spencer Tracy being chauffeured through the obliterated remains of the Old City section of Nuremberg, Germany, where the famous trials were taking place. Another man in the car explains to him that this was where the Nazis held their most famous rallies. A bit later, Tracy walks around the city, visiting the spot where Adolf Hitler once gave a speech. The town is in ruin with all of the damaged buildings, including centuries old churches, and piles of debris caused by British bombers on January 2, 1945. Only the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, six weeks later caused more damage and civilian deaths in Germany.
Nuremberg Germany, as well as Dresden, were not military targets but civilian and both bombings have been referred to as “vindictive Allied bombings,” meaning they were simply done because they could be. It has been argued that it was done to demoralize Germany while others have suggested it was simply to use up an excess amount of bombs as the war was already quickly nearing its end. Either way, it sets up a very interesting setting. Here are men being put on trial for atrocities they committed in the name of their country while outside their windows is evidence of atrocities committed against their country by the conquering forces who have put them on trial.
As Patrick wrote, this film features the trial of several Nazi judges but it essentially puts all Germans of that time period on the stand. The scene where Tracy talks to the married couple of servants of the mansion the Americans have given him to live in after kicking out the original affluent German owner, played by Marlene Dietrich, is very telling. The wife says that they were not political and they knew nothing about what was going on. Tracy presses on with the questions and easily discovers that they knew more than they want to talk about. They are both scared to tell Tracy what they knew but the wife explains that Hitler did do some good things, such as building the Autobahn.
A movie about the trials of Nazi judges could have easily been a one sided, black and white experience but that would not have made for good drama. Kramer makes the witnesses compelling, allowing the defense to make points as well as the prosecutor. Tracy is playing a liberal leaning judge who, at times, seems to be giving the defense lawyer more leeway than he deserves, again, providing a heightened level of court room drama.
The scene with the actual footage of the results of the concentration and death camps is emotionally disturbing but it also plays into the debate of the trials. We see the piles of corpses and we are repulsed. We want those who are responsible to pay for these unprecedented crimes against humanity. The questions then becomes, are these judges on trial for their role in those deaths or are they just there so the allied forces can feel that revenge has taken place?
The prosecutor argues that these judges knowingly wore a judge’s robe with a swastika on them in 1935 while another judge chose not to and retired. In 1935, the final solution had yet to be determined and the laws against Jews’ freedom had barely begun. There was no way at that time for these judges to know where the country was heading and by the time they did, they no longer had the freedom to defy the laws that they did not create. They knew that people who spoke against the Nazi party or defied its rules were taken away. Sure, some of those judges may have been Jew hating bastards while others were merely in fear of theirs and their family’s lives if they ever made the wrong ruling. Are these judges criminals because they did what they had to do to stay safe? If you answer yes then you must ask whether a person in a concentration camp was a criminal for stealing food from another prisoner, that resulted in that person’s starvation. The survival instinct is strong and as un-heroic as it is, most people will turn a blind eye to the misery of another if it means their life goes on.
Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland do give very stirring performances but there is not a weak member in the entire cast. I was most fascinated by the presence of the Berlin born Marlene Dietrich. She once stated that in the late 1930s, when her career was at a low point, she was approached by members of the Nazi party with an offer to return to Germany and make films for them. She not only refused but was inspired to apply for and became an American citizen. She spent much of the war selling bonds and supported the Allied troops through USO shows. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in 1945 and the Légion d'honneur by the French government as recognition for her wartime work. After the war she helped relocate members of her family that had lived in Germany throughout the war to the United States. It is her presence that shows that there were choices to be made if one had the freedom to make them. Had she been trapped in Germany, would she have refused the offer to make films there?
My comments may sound like I am defending the judges but that is what this film is supposed to do. We need to see both sides of this or we have a story without depth. Burt Lancaster gets on the stand and tries to explain it, even if he gets a bit too overly enthusiastic describing how the country was caught up in patriotism and progress. He also confesses to Germany’s sins. Were these judges, and all Germans, guilty because they knew, although perhaps not in detail, what was going on? Are the citizens of a country guilty for the crimes of its government, especially if the government is a dictatorship? And what of the point the defense lawyer makes when he asks that if we are supposed to hold those German citizens guilty, why not the rest of the world that knew what was going on and did not stop it. Did you know that not a single railroad track heading to any of the concentration/death camps were ever bombed by the allies? Would not those have been a better target than Nuremberg or Dresden?
I had not seen Judgment at Nuremberg in years and had a whole new appreciation for it with this viewing. We always think of movies with Nazis in them in black and white terms but this film presents it in shades of gray. There is no excuse for the crimes that were committed but where does the responsibility for those crimes end?
Although I would have liked to have seen more of the stars in the same frame instead of cutting back and forth to them, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a historically important masterpiece!
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1961)