Guest Contributor – Lauren Humphries-Brooks
In the opening credits of Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, now on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber, the camera lingers on an image of the swastika atop the Deutsches Stadion, as the soundtrack plays “Wenn wir marschieren” (“When We March”). Then the swastika explodes, and the audience is drawn into Germany in 1948, several years into “denazification.” It’s a potent image for what comes after the war is over, when the crimes, big and small, meet with justice, and what justice (and judgment) means when the law is unjust.
Judgment at Nuremberg follows the trial of four judges and prosecutors for crimes against humanity in their actions during the Nazi regime. The spectacular cast includes Spencer Tracy as the Chief Trial Judge Dan Haywood, Richard Widmark as prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson, Maximillian Schell as defense Hans Rolfe, Marlene Dietrich as Frau Bertholt, the widow of a high-profile military officer, and Burt Lancaster as Dr. Ernst Janning, one of the defendants. As the trial proceeds, it raises questions about the meaning of the rule of law, the hopes for Germany to “move past” Nazism, and the culpability of judges and prosecutors who passed sentences according to Nazi law and were indirectly and directly responsible for the atrocities committed in concentration camps.
Judgment at Nuremberg is more than a few years removed from the events it depicts. It’s a fictionalized account of the Judges’ Trial of 1947 (which tried sixteen people, not four); the central argument of the Feldenstein case is based on the Katzenberger Trial, and the other cases argued are amalgams of judgments handed down during the Nazi regime. The fictionalization of some events allows for a greater scope of conflicting ideologies and precedents, effectively putting all of Germany on trial in the process. Central to the film’s argument is how judges and prosecutors can excuse their actions in following the laws of their nation, when the laws of the nation are biased and unjust. But the film does not deal with such issues simplistically or lightly—Rolfe’s main argument stems from the fact that many judges in other nations, including the United States, supported eugenics and upheld the unjust laws of their own countries (a powerful and damning argument in the civil rights era). The film refuses to reduce or simplify the atrocities committed by the Nazis into something for which only the commandants of the camps, the soldiers, or even the leading members of the party were responsible—rather, it was the whole of society, laws and courtrooms, and everyday citizens who share in the evils committed, as well the international community who carried out fascist policies or turned away from Nazi crimes in the name of political expediency.
Within this fraught narrative are some remarkable, heart-wrenching performances from the entire cast. Tracy’s performance anchors the film with a logical and occasionally humorous intelligence, as a judge trying to find where justice lies in a world that has become unjust. Widmark and Schell give impassioned portrayals of men defending their notions of justice and the rule of law, and the secondary characters—including a haunted Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland—provide such moving turns of their own that it’s hard to leave the film without feeling put through the wringer.
The two main cases rehashed over the course of Judgment at Nuremberg are the case of Rudolph Peterson (Clift), a young man forcibly sterilized after being deemed “mentally incompetent,” and the Feldenstein case, in which a Jewish man was accused of having sexual relations with an “Aryan” girl (Garland). The latter’s question of “race defilement,” and the fact that the judge in the case – Janning – passed sentence based upon the “law of the land” has implications that stretch beyond the Nazi era. Janning was a respected judge and legal scholar prior to the rise of Hitler, and he spends most of the film declining to recognize the authority of the court. But this arc becomes the most important, and Janning’s final speech when he takes the stand should be studied by anyone living in a free society.
Judgment at Nuremberg is a compelling courtroom drama, made more so by the real world moral implications of the film beyond post-war Germany. There are moments of levity, mostly surrounding Haywood’s interaction with Frau Bertholt outside of court, but even this takes on heightened importance as the handling of national guilt becomes central to the film’s narrative. No one is let off the hook here, but neither are the Nazis and those who enabled them viewed solely as monstrous “Others” who overtook a nation. The men on trial, and the men and women who tacitly supported them, are human, their evil more horrifying for its banality, for the fact that none of them want to acknowledge that they are as culpable for the deaths in the concentration camps as the soldiers who led prisoners to gas chambers. “We didn’t know,” is a constant refrain.
Through the use of real footage from the era, the film hammers home the collective guilt of not just Germany but of the world, as prosecutor Lawson shows scenes from the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other camps, as bodies are shoveled into mass graves. Visually austere images of post-war Nuremberg, as Germany attempts to rebuild itself, remind us of the toll of war on the very face of the people and the landscape. The film is shell-shocked, grappling with the aftermath of events so horrific that an entire country, an entire world, cannot quite understand them.
The complex interplay of political and ideological stakes that are nevertheless humanized and individualized elevates Judgment at Nuremberg beyond many films about the post-war era. It declines to provide easy answers or reassuring narratives. It is about healing through reliving and re-evaluating shared trauma. The horror of Nuremberg is that evil is indeed so banal, and can appear so simple and legal. The destruction of the swastika is the beginning, not the end. It may never end.