Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Dir. Stanley Kramer. Starring Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell

Burt Lancaster, as disgraced German jurist Ernst Janning, doesn’t have very much to say in Judgment at Nuremberg. Like a smart defendant, he is mostly silent for vast swaths of the film; Janning – through his lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Schell) – questions the validity of an American tribunal in Germany, and refuses to plead guilty or not guilty to the charge. (Historically speaking, he has a point; people from then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Stone to Hannah Arendt had wondered from where the tribunals drew their power, and they had good points.) The presiding judge (Tracy) shrugs it off and enters “not guilty.”

Burt Lancaster is a wonderful actor, and an underrated talker as well. Consider him in Sweet Smell of Success or From Here to Eternity, two of his vital roles, and in both cases his talk is deeply important. To withhold it as long as Kramer and company do is a credit to their patience and their eye on the stakes of the action. But his body, as befits a Burt, is the key. The other judges on trial are old, weaselly, or both. Lancaster is older than we remember him from his ’50s glory days, and part of that is makeup, but nothing has been detracted from his broad shoulders and Miss Manners-perfect posture. The other three defendants in this trial are the face of Nazi “justice.” One is bald and a little goblinesque, another is meek and wears a bow-tie, and a third is old and gnarled. Janning, the Minister of Justice, is as different from them as a man can be, but there they all are together in the dock.

Judgment at Nuremberg is such an unusual movie, although the “prestige drama on a socially important topic starring an ensemble cast” card had certainly been played before, and it would be again and again. It is long for a movie by almost any standard, although the Long Movie is one of the hallmarks of late ’50s and early ’60s filmmaking that I miss dearly, and Kramer one of its foremost purveyors. Judgment at Nuremberg’s biggest stars are Tracy, Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland. While none of them had exactly shriveled up and died at that point, none of them were in their heydays anymore; indeed, three of those five would be dead by the end of the ’60s. Judgment at Nuremberg, despite having those luminaries on hand, entrusts much of its most impassioned speech to two more obscure (but very capable) actors, Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell, who the two lawyers in the case. Widmark is the American prosecutor, Lawson, who goes all in on his condemnation of the jurists on trial from the get-go, needlessly strident. It’s a very Tracy moment when his character, Judge Haywood, stops him: you need to slow down, he says, the translators can’t keep up with you right now. Schell, who won Best Actor in this picture for his nuanced, difficult performance of the defense attorney, is just as loud at times. Their cases boil down to a question of guilt more for Germany than for the men being tried: are the German people guilty of war crimes, especially the Holocaust (as Lawson claims), or were the German people generally ignorant of what had happened (as Rolfe avers)?

Although Haywood notes at the outset that he doesn’t expect anyone to care very much about these Nuremberg Trials – the men like Goring and Jodl, Streicher and von Ribbentrop, have long been cremated – he finds out that there’s another influence that has nothing to do with the court itself. It has to do with the Cold War, the fact that the Soviets are making headway on hearts and minds in Germany, and that these American tribunals trying German nationals are unpopular. Politically, giving men like Janning a light sentence, or even seeing them free, would go a long way to providing some goodwill towards Americans. Indeed, as the trial stretches on, the shady military powers which are propping up the trial become strenuously overt; they pressure both Lawson and Haywood to lay off; to their credit, neither of them crack.

Judgment at Nuremberg is strange because it’s a movie that works despite not having a single interesting person in it. Everyone is playing an Ideal (“Starring Spencer Tracy as…Blind Justice!”), or symbolizing a Nation (“and Richard Widmark as…America!”), or standing in for the People of Germany (“and featuring Burt Lancaster as…die Volker von Deutschland!“). There are few changes in the characters; the person who is most different from beginning to end is probably Haywood, who sees himself at the outset as a more or less benign character but who finds himself repulsed, at film’s end, by the almost casual repetition of “We didn’t know!” he hears among Germans. He hears it from the Widow Bertholt (Dietrich), whom he takes a shine to, and he hears it from her servants, who seems like a good guy, and he hears it in court from Rolfe, whose sole motivation is to ensure that the glorious Ernst Janning doesn’t spend the rest of his life in a jail cell. If that were to happen, then that would mean that Germany the people as well as Germany the state were guilty, and like most of the other men in this movie, Rolfe is a patriot. Admitting guilt for more than just a few men – preferably famous dead ones, like Hitler or Himmler or Goebbels – is unthinkable. It would cast shame on a state that has endured more shame than any of its inhabitants thought possible, even in the aftermath of World War I. The person of Janning is important at first because he’s Burt Lancaster. It’s not until late in the film, when the picture becomes almost a struggle to sit through for its ponderousness, that Janning changes his symbolic stripes. He is no longer just a stand-in for the German people; he is now a stand-in for their missing conscience.

Janning, who is almost entirely silent for a massive stretch of the film, obliterates his own defense counsel’s arguments in a monologue that lasts for nearly ten minutes. The viewer, at this point, has taken one of two positions. Either the people of Germany really didn’t know that the Holocaust was going on (the position of Mrs. Berthold and the servants) or the German people were acutely aware of what was going on, albeit with some missing details, and did nothing (the position of Lawson and his team). So many people have come forward with the former – and Rolfe, through some haunting questions of a sterilized man with a mental disability (Clift) and a married woman who was a dear friend of a much older Jew (Garland), has made Janning’s judicial record seem so reasonable in context – that it has either convinced the person watching or it has infuriated him/her. Either you can accept Rolfe’s case that the average German was unaware of the Holocaust and the various atrocities of the Third Reich, or you sit there and practically scream, “So where do you think your Jewish neighbors went?” Janning makes it perfectly clear that it was impossible not to know anything. If the trial was a legal farce before Janning comes to the stand, he certainly makes it so now. The tribunal was effected to try certain men who were particularly responsible, but one of those particularly responsible men has opened up to say that his countrymen were negligent in the way that a person who falls asleep at the wheel of his car and runs someone else down is negligent. They must be tried, too, but who can try an entire nation? The justice system is based on the assumption that the vast majority of citizens will abide by the law and never step into a courtroom in their lives. Systems like the one that created the idea of the tribunal are meaningless in the face of immane evil, and Janning knows it. No wonder his lawyer questioned the authority of the court; if it were Janning’s idea, surely it had much less to do with getting off than it did with pointing out the absurdity of individual guilt. In that video above, he says that everyone could discuss the fact of Jews herded into cattle cars and sent off to concentration camps. How would anyone go about prosecuting the vast number of people who saw that happening? The point is as obvious as that zoom-in that Kramer’s addicted to in this film. The meaninglessness of the tribunal is thrown into everyone’s faces by the end. Despite Haywood’s good intentions – all four defendants, including the reputable Janning, receive life imprisonment – the words on the screen at the end tell us what Rolfe slyly guessed would happen, more or less. Rolfe bets that none of the defendants in that case would be in prison in five years; the movie notes that none of the defendants from the subordinate Nuremberg trials remained in prison in 1961.

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