I previously posted a review of the 1967 best picture nominee Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that was somewhat critical of Stanley Kramer as a filmmaker. In retrospect, I feel like I may have been a bit too dismissive of Stanley Kramer. When one looks over the list of every film that has ever been nominated for best picture, one comes across the name Stanley Kramer (as a producer, a director, or both) far too many times to just blindly dismiss him for the sin of being old-fashioned. While Kramer made his share of well-intentioned misfires like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, he was also responsible for some films that remain important and watchable today. Judgment at Nuremberg is one of those films.
Judgment at Nuremberg opens in 1947, with one car being driven through the ruins of Nuremberg, Germany. Inside the car is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), a judge from Maine who has been appointed chief of a military tribunal that will be passing judgment on four German judges who are accused of crimes against humanity for their legal rulings during the Nazi regime. As Haywood quickly learns, many people don’t feel that the Nazi judges should be held as accountable for their actions as men like Hitler, Goebbles, and Goering should have been. It’s up to Haywood to determine whether the accused were simply doing their job or if they had a responsibility to defy the laws that they had sworn to uphold.
Judgment at Nuremberg almost feels like two films. The first film is a courtroom drama, where the Nazi judges (the main one of which is played by Burt Lancaster) are prosecuted by the fiery Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and defended by the idealistic Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). While Lawson approaches the case and regards the defendants with righteous anger, Rolfe takes a more cerebral approach to defending the undefensible. Rolfe argues that the judges were following the laws of Germany and that if the tribunal finds them guilty than it will be finding the entire nation of Germany guilty. (In a rather clever twist, director Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann initially make the German defense attorney a far more likable character than the American prosecutor.) During the trial, we also hear heart-wrenching testimony from two people (played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland) who were victimized by the Nazi regime and the judges who gave legal legitimacy to the regime’s crimes.
The second film deals with Haywood adjusting to working in Germany and trying to understand how the Nazis could have come to power in the first place. Haywood asks several Germans to tell him about life under the Nazis and every time, he is met with bland excuses. (“We were not political,” he is told more than once.) The film’s strongest scenes are the ones where Haywood simply walks alone through the ruins of Nuremberg. Spencer Tracy was a uniquely American actor and, much as he did in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Tracy here stood in for every American who was struggling to make sense of a changing world.
In his book Pictures At A Revolution, Mark Harris correctly points out that Stanley Kramer started out as a producer and, even after he started directing, he still approached filmmaking like a producer. While that approach led to many uninspiring films, it was also the right approach for Judgment at Nuremberg. Perhaps realizing that Judgment at Nuremberg was a long and talky movie about a disturbing subject manner, Kramer made the very producer-like decision to fill Judgment at Nuremberg with recognizable faces. While this approach has proven disastrous for many films, it works quite well in Judgment at Nuremberg.
This is one of the most perfectly cast films of all time, with all of the actors bringing both their characters and the issues that they’re confronting to vivid life. As the main defendant, Burt Lancaster brings a combination of intelligence and self-loathing to his role, playing him in such a way to reveal that even he can’t believe the evil he upheld as a judge. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is perfectly cast as a world-weary man who is simply trying to figure out what justice means in the post-war world. Maximilian Schell plays his role with so much passion that it’s impossible not to listen to him even when you despise the argument he’s making. Marlene Dietrich has an extended cameo where she plays the widow of Nazi general who befriends Judge Haywood but still refuses to admit that she knew anything about what Adolf Hitler was doing. Even William Shatner shows up, playing a small role as Haywood’s chief military aide and yes, he does deliver his lines in that Shatner way of his.
First released in 1962, Judgment at Nuremberg won Oscars for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Abby Mann) and was nominated for 9 more: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Spencer Tracy), Best Supporting Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Garland), Best Black-and-White Art Direction, Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Black-and-White Costume Design, and Best Film Editing. While it’s hard to argue with the victory of West Side Story in that year’s Oscar race, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a watchable and thought-provoking film.