The penultimate moment of realization for condemned German justice, Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) is, in fact, the haunting epitaph to Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); a weary Janning imploring American Chief Judge, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) with a personal atonement for all the atrocities committed under Nazi socialism, adding “I never knew it would come to that. You must believe me.” Haywood’s sobering reply: “Herr Janning…it came to ‘that’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” By then, audiences had been treated to 179 minutes of intense courtroom histrionics, some fairly weighty – if poetic – speeches, expertly delivered by the principle cast, and, an artistic framework built around the very first mass public exposure to the gruesome newsreel footage taken by the American liberator’s film corps at Dachau concentration camp.
While no accurate number of casualties incurred will likely ever be known, for certain the tally of the murdered accrued there is in the thousands. Too often, the meticulous narrative construction of screenwriter, Abby Mann’s sublime melodrama is overlooked. What Mann had achieved is nothing short of a miracle; his expansive canvas of world events lyrically distilled into a highly personal and unlikely ‘respect’ and sublime disenchantment, dishearteningly realized by Tracy’s world-weary Haywood for Lancaster’s demoralized Janning.
In his courtroom summation, Haywood points to the staggering and unholy truth of it all; Janning – the tragic figure, whom Haywood staunchly believes “loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts - if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs - these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men - even able and extraordinary men - can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination.”
Haywood’s final words are, perhaps, even more prophetic today than when first spoken. “There are those in our country too who speak of the protection of the country. Of ‘survival’. The answer to that is: ‘survival as what?’ A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world - let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth... and the value of a single human being!”
By his own admission screenwriter, Abby Mann did not set out to write a propaganda piece. Indeed, in his passionate resolve to spare his entertainment the trappings of a lengthy diatribe or heavy-handed indictment on the atrocities committed under Adolf Hitler’s reign, Mann focused the crux of his documented theatrics on the conflict of personalities at play in his electrifying courtroom drama. Many today will forget Judgment at Nuremberg began as a play filmed for television’s popular live theater program, Playhouse 90; the roster including the inimitable Claude Rains (as Haywood) and newcomer, Maximilian Schell – the brother of famed German star, Maria Schell. Max’s star turn in the TV drama made him an obvious choice for the movie version, although it took the clout of director, Stanley Kramer to insist on his reprise. The part was heavily sought after by Marlon Brando - a far more ‘bankable’ star.
Schell’s superb and Oscar-winning performance as defense council, Hans Rolfe is counterbalanced in the movie by Richard Widmark’s venomous prosecuting attorney, Colonel Tad Lawson. Viewed today, both performances are apt to occasionally veer into exaggeration. But Schell’s remains more steadily on course; Widmark’s passionate reveling in the punctuation of every last syllable as written becoming marginally tedious. Other roles went to Judy Garland, spellbindingly brilliant as the fragile, Irene Wallner; Montgomery Clift as the surgically enfeebled, Rudolph Peterson, and, Marlene Dietrich’s embittered, Madame Bertholt, former wife of a high-ranking Nazi general.
Of all this glittering assemblage, Dietrich is, perhaps, the most poignant and truest to the core of the piece. The sultry and gender-bending Dietrich – one of Germany’s brightest cinema stars in the late 1920’s and early 30’s – had forsaken the Nazi occupation of her country in 1939, becoming a U.S. citizen, her outward condemnation of her former homeland, “the German people and I no longer speak the same language”, inciting considerable ire back home for decades yet to follow.
The irony, of course, is Marlene would forever be linked to Germany in her American career; often cast as an ex-patriot, or spy or scheming – if sinfully exotic – foreigner, perpetuating the myth of the good/bad German in America movies. In Judgment at Nuremberg she is, quite simply, the shattered soul of a nation, revealed to Judge Haywood by an, at first, glacial exterior slowly melted into tender friendship, but doomed to abject pity and ultimate refusal as Haywood’s perspective on the German people’s complicity in national socialism turns from compassion to letdown and eventual – if restrained – scorn. Dietrich’s international fame led to a reconciliation of sorts with Germany. In later years, she toured the country in a one woman show that enthralled audiences.
On the surface, Judgment at Nuremberg is a fairly weighty tome; covering not only the atrocities of the Holocaust but also examining the geo-political hotbed of complexities surrounding the actual Nuremberg trials. Almost miraculously, Judgment at Nuremberg never deviates into typically heavy-handed courtroom theatrics; Abby Mann’s critique of the persecution and genocide of European Jews, telescopically refocused as crimes perpetrated by a corrupt German autocracy against its racial/religious, and eugenic groupings. Alas, Abby Mann could find no one to produce it; the general – and nervous – consensus being not enough time had passed between the proposed film and actual events; at least enough for them to be considered ‘ancient history’. Hollywood en masse might have also seen a distinct parallel between Mann’s prose and the, then, even more recent scourge of the McCarthy witch hunts, resulting in the blacklisting of some of its most prominent talent. Better not to pick at that scab. Mann perceived blind patriotism as the villain of his piece; recognizing that under considerable stress during a national crisis, even extraordinary men of great moral convictions and intellect could be swayed into its maelstrom of turpitude.
Along the road to immortality, Mann was repeatedly discouraged from proceeding with his plans to turn the TV drama into a major motion picture. However, Katherine Hepburn had seen Playhouse 90, had been moved by it, and furthermore, had thought it a splendid vehicle for her lover, Spencer Tracy. Tracy agreed, but only if Stanley Kramer would direct it. With such heavy-hitters on his side, United Artists green lit Judgment at Nuremberg; Mann going to work assembling his all-star cast from a roster of Tinsel Town’s finest. To the film version, Kramer brought his own inimitable brands of conviction and energy; a passionate film-maker’s eye with a keen sense of timing. Kramer had hoped to shoot the entire movie in Berlin and Nuremberg. In the end, half his wish was granted; approximately fifty percent of Judgment at Nuremberg shot among the ruins of those cities. Kramer also had dozens of photographs taken of the actual courtroom where the Nuremberg trials had taken place to better inform his production designer, Rudolph Sternad, and set decorator, George Milo in their meticulous recreations.
In retrospect, Judgment at Nuremberg can also be seen as one of the first – of the last – blindingly all-star pictures to emerge from the decade that gave us such grandiose ensemble entertainments as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cleopatra (1963), and Kramer’s own jam-packed It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Courtroom dramas are, perhaps, the most exigent form of movie entertainment to pull off successfully – primarily because the ‘action’ takes place inside a single confined space with the principles immobilized in seated positions. Kramer did, in fact, ‘open up’ the play to accommodate the demands of cinema; his departures from the courtroom yielding a rich tapestry of vignettes to showcase and crystalize the pall and lingering devastation inflicted on Germany’s nationalism and pride. There is very little room within the framework of Abby Mann’s original to infuse a more lighthearted flair. But Kramer managed brief flights into quaint comedy nonetheless; perhaps, the most charming of them all featuring Tracy’s Haywood stopping for a sausage at an outdoor market. He takes notice of an attractive German fräulein, quietly smoking a cigarette. The two exchange mildly flirtatious glances and she quietly says a few words with tenderness he does not understand before departing. Inquiring for a translation from the street vendor who has overheard their conversation, Haywood is told the girl said “Goodbye, grandpa!”
The emotional core of Judgment at Nuremberg is centered on Haywood’s burgeoning friendship with Madame Bertholt; the widow of a high-ranking Nazi official who has already been executed for war crimes. Haywood’s stay in Bertholt’s former residence is left at a quiet unease by the presence of two of Bertholt’s former servants; Mr. and Mrs. Halbestadt (Ben Wright and Virginia Christine). Haywood’s introduction to the city reveals its desolate wasteland. “I didn’t think it was this bad,” Haywood confides to fellow justice, Kenneth Norris (Kenneth MacKenna). Indeed, Germany is a shell of its former self; the specters of Nazi socialism lingering all about. Stanley Kramer aptly begins Judgment at Nuremberg with the explosion of the Nazi insignia – the stone wreathed swastika – toppled from its perch at the Reichsparteitagsgelände. From here, Haywood is introduced to his personal attaché, Capt. Harrison Byers (William Shatner), the Halbestadts and, not long thereafter, Madame Bertholt, who has come to take a few mementos from the house. Bertholt is distant. But Haywood is compassionate to her plight and allows her to retrieve whatever she wishes without question.
From these auspicious beginnings, Stanley Kramer delves into the trial; presided over by Haywood, Norris and a third judge, Curtiss Ives (Ray Teal). The prosecution, helmed by Col. Tad Lawson, is intent on exposing the distortions and perversions of German law, as dispensed by a motley crew of grey-faced and steely-eyed former judges. These included, Dr. Ernest Janning – once, the foremost progressive influence in modern German justice. Also in the dock are Justices Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), Werner Lampe (Torben Meyer), and Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt). Each enters a plea of ‘not guilty’ in tandem, cumulatively represented by impassioned defense council, Hans Rolfe. Haywood is empathetic toward the accused. Indeed, as he points out, some feel the trial of these judges is a redundancy stalemating the post-war recovery. But Haywood is determined to press on. In his free time, he explores the city. A widower, he begins an unlikely friendship with Madame Bertholt, suggestive it could lead to something more. She introduces him to the lingering traditions of Germany before the war. Lawson is adversarial toward Bertholt; his more blatant vitriol spared for the trial, where he and Rolfe frequently clash over contentious points about the extent to which the German justices had knowledge about the gruesome fates on innocent defendants their verdicts had, brought before them by S.S. officers.
We hear testimony from Dr. Karl Wieck (John Wengraf); once, a mild proponent of National Socialism, but long since having changed his opinion, Rolfe suggests to avoid his own prosecution. Also called to testify is Rudolph Petersen (Montgomery Clift, in a mesmerizing performance); a shell-shocked remnant of his former self since being ordered to submit to medical sterilization. On the witness stand, Petersen accounts the hour he was forcibly taken away and made ‘half the man he used to be’. Clift, who survived a near fatal auto accident that deprived him not only of his handsome good looks but also the self-confidence that went with it, is exquisite as this bumbling and wild-eyed figure, infused with nervous ticks and holding up a picture of the real Petersen’s mother, shouting “Look…my mother! Was she feeble-minded?!?”
The other exemplary performance, among the many called to testify, belongs to Judy Garland. Primarily known as a musical comedy star, Garland is stirring as Irene Hoffman, a middle-aged frump sent to a Nazi work camp in her youth after being accused of improprieties with a then middle-aged Jewish friend of her family who was cruelly labeled a sexual deviant and sent to the gas chambers. Under cross-examination by Hans Rolfe, Irene suffers a breakdown; vehemently denying the allegation - that simply because she sat on the ‘old Jew’s’ lap and accepted candy from him, there was something more sinisterly sexual about their father/daughter friendship. Abby Mann had, in fact, based the nefarious ‘Feldenstein case’ in the movie on an actual trial involving an elderly Jewish man put to death in 1935 for allegedly carrying on a sexual relationship with an Aryan girl of sixteen.
As the climax of Rolfe’s humiliating insinuations bring Irene to the brink of collapse, her tear-stained testimony is interrupted by the stoic, Ernst Janning who addresses the court directly, despite objections from his defense council. Janning describes the ‘fever’ afflicting the German people; one predicated on ‘disgrace, indignity and hunger’. He eloquently surmises the folly of the Weimar Republic, its fractured democracy leaving a void into which Hitler was able to whip up his own blind-sided - if unified - frenzy from the ashes as both its paranoia and propaganda. At last, Janning concedes to the fault in Hitler’s master plan. It was not in the tyranny he preached, but by how infectious it proved on the hearts and minds of the people and, more importantly, the judges who had sworn their allegiances to justice. Now they partook in the hysteria, knowing the brevity of their actions. Janning’s benediction hypnotizes the courtroom. He speaks of a passing phase becoming a way of life; of a people turned, not to accept, but desire the perversion of their own human rights. In his penultimate moment of realization, Janning points to Rolfe’s skillful defense; in effect, charging him with the perpetuation of the myth of their innocence.
“I was content to sit silent during this trial,” Janning concludes, “I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it - he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country. It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it... whatever the pain and humiliation.”
Armed with the forcefulness of Janning’s argument, this after having seen the grotesque concentration camp footage for the first time, Haywood and his cohorts render a verdict of guilty. Madame Bertholt’s faith in the past; in her husband’s notorious legacy; her burgeoning hope for an understanding from Haywood; everything she had once dreamed, known, hoped for and invested in to be the truth – these principles are devastatingly swept away for all time. In the movie’s epitaph, Janning bequeaths his writing to Haywood, imploring him to be compassionate. Haywood is, but his tenderness toward Janning’s predicament has left him. In his departure from the courtroom, Haywood is confronted by Hans Rolfe, who wagers that none of the defendants charged and imprisoned this day will remain so for very long.
“In five years,” Rolfe gloats with a cocky smile, “…the men you sentenced to life imprisonment will be free.” Haywood nods with sad-eyed agreement. “Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic...so what you suggest may very well happen. It ‘is’ logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God's earth could ever make it right.” The movie’s epilogue reveals Rolfe’s prophecy come true. None of the convicted served their full life sentences, all of them out by the time the movie was made.
Judgment at Nuremberg is, perhaps, Stanley Kramer’s finest hour as a film maker. Unquestioningly, it remains one of his most potent and enduring movies. Based upon the ‘subsequent Nuremberg trials’, Abby Mann’s screenplay is an impassioned critique of the legalities of justice pitted against the moral condemnation and outrage focused on the atrocities committed in the name of nationalistic pride. Mann’s eloquent speeches are superbly spoken by Spencer Tracy, and particularly, Maximillian Schell, who won the Best Actor Academy Award. Additionally, Judgment at Nuremberg was nominated for a total of eleven Oscars; the only other statuette bestowed on the movie for Abby Mann’s writing. Interestingly, Tracy’s performance anchors us in a sort of present day relevancy, while Schell’s moody and haunting counterpoint, attempts with the greatest conviction to whitewash and blindside the legal wheels with an emphatic defense strategy; evoking every known precedent and even the jurisprudence of Oliver Wendell Holmes to persuade and manipulate.
The stellar supporting cast is all just icing on an already exceptionally well-frosted cake; Tracy’s craggy exterior, coupled with his curmudgeonly world-weariness proving the quintessence of America’s awkward forthrightness in matters of policing the world. The other deliciousness at work is, of course, Rolfe’s wily verbal sparring with Col. Lawson. Here are two men of diverging mindsets to be sure, but of incredibly like-minded and singular passions: Rolfe’s fervent belief in his clients’ innocence, but also perhaps in that tragically flawed past that has brought them all to this moment, never entirely challenged by Lawson’s bitter and even more self-doubting/pitying crusader for justice; chasing after his lost cause with hammer and tong, but emotionally emasculated by the excursion. At one point, outside of the courtroom, and a little worse for the wine, Lawson begrudgingly admits, “One thing about Americans, we're not cut out to be occupiers. We're new at it and not very good at it.”
Judgment at Nuremberg is a peerless entertainment, surefootedly executed by Stanley Kramer. Kramer’s command of not only the language of cinema, but also its space, has yielded an unusual richness. Courtroom dramas have always been a main staple of Hollywood movies, though few have run an epic 3 hrs. 6 min. and managed to remain as star-studded or as spellbinding for virtually every last minute of their screen time. Judgment at Nuremberg is the exception. It yields an embarrassment of riches. It is an actor’s movie – also, a playwright’s – the combined efforts from all these memorable faces, resulting in a spectacle impossible to top.
Through it all runs the fine thread of Abby Mann’s personal conviction. The pleasure in Mann’s prose is not to be derived from the performances given – at least, not entirely, but rather, by listening to the meticulously concocted arguments he manages to bestow without a single word seemingly left out of place. Cut one line here or add just a few words to a bit of dialogue over there and the tenuous balance of the piece could so easily be thrown out of whack. But Mann’s craftsmanship is both immeasurably confident and astounding. Such is the way with all great artists who discover the kernels of truth in their art. Mann’s remains a legacy of astute eloquence, likely to remain unchallenged for a very long time.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release easily bests the old MGM non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD from 2004. We get a gorgeous 1080p image with densely layered contrast and fine grain textures. Twilight Time has a menu option to play the feature with or without its overture, intermission and exit music; Ernest Gold’s powerful score repurposed in 5.1 DTS. The B&W image astounds – truly and completely. Fine detail is evident throughout and most noticeable during the many featured close-ups in hair, skin and clothing. Wow and thank you! There are extremely minor hints of age-related speckling – barely visible and hardly worth mentioning.
Apart from the newly included isolated stereo score, all of the supplements included herein have been ported over from the aforementioned DVD and include a 20 min., largely self-congratulatory conversation between Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell, a 6 min. sound bite entitled, The Value of a Single Human Being and thirty minutes excised from the hour long Tribute to Stanley Kramer. As is usual for TT, noted historian, Julie Kirgo provides us with some stellar notes and reflections on the film; always appreciated. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)