Blog Directory CineVerse: The verdict is in: Judgment at Nuremberg still packs a dramatic punch

The verdict is in: Judgment at Nuremberg still packs a dramatic punch

Monday, October 3, 2022

The Nuremberg trials following the conclusion of World War II gripped the world, as millions waited to learn the fates of many Nazis accused of crimes against humanity. Dramatizing these kinds of trials for the big screen would be no easy feat, but producer/director Stanley Kramer attempted it in 1961 with his courtroom drama epic Judgment at Nuremberg, which presents a fictionalized account of the trial of four Nazis. Our CineVerse mission last week was to parse through this picture carefully and decide on the movie’s merits and misses. Here’s a recap of our talk (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion).

What struck you as interesting, unanticipated, impressive, or noteworthy about Judgment at Nuremberg?

  • This is actually a fictional story, based loosely on the famous Judges’ Trial of 1947, in which a military tribunal passed judgment on Germans accused of war crimes. While it feels like a historically accurate depiction of a factual case, this is meant to be more of a composite case study of the types of tribunals conducted in Germany after World War II.
  • The film boasts a star-studded cast, which yielded four Academy award nominations for acting; Maximilian Schell was the sole Oscar winner here, for his portrayal of defense attorney Hans Rolfe. Many people more strongly recall the performances of Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift, also nominated. The enlisting of Marlene Dietrich is shrewd, as she was a German expatriate who fled her country when the Nazis came to power.
  • The filmmakers employ interesting if not theatrically showy techniques to amplify the tension, including crash zooms, dramatic zoom-ins and zoom-outs, 360-degree tracking shots around characters within the courtroom, and long unbroken takes. They also cleverly transition from using two languages to employing English-only dialogue, which would have helped to reduce the runtime and make it easier for viewers to follow the courtroom exchanges.
  • This is one of the first Hollywood films to show actual stock footage of the concentration camps and the disturbing images of Holocaust victims. Interestingly, the filmmakers don’t save this reveal as a climactic courtroom scene; the footage is played roughly halfway through the story.
  • This is one of the finest examples of a riveting courtroom drama, even though a good portion of its runtime occurs outside of the courtroom, in which we see Judge Haywood interact with the German people.
  • Director/producer Stanley Kramer was known for bravely making message movies and social problem pictures in which didactic lessons, high-minded themes, and topical issues were addressed, often irritating many critics and audiences alike for being on-the-nose preachy and moralizing. Examples include Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, one of the first films to delve into the then sticky matter of interracial marriage; The Defiant Ones, which explores racism and bigotry; Inherit the Wind, which examines science versus religion; and On the Beach, spotlighting fears of nuclear war.

Major themes

  • Collective guilt and responsibility: How culpable are individuals, as well as society and a country’s population in general, for the suffering and death of innocent victims? Judgment at Nuremberg asks tough questions about the extent to which those who should have known better and resisted evil acts and immoral laws are liable for the repercussions of these laws and actions.
  • The importance of acknowledging the truth and accepting individual/personal responsibility so that lessons can be learned and history will hopefully not be repeated.
  • Individual human beings suffer at the hands of evil, not faceless and nameless victims. During and after genocide and cruelty suffered by millions, it’s crucial to humanize the victims and remember that each has or had a story to tell, that every life is precious and matters. Among the most emotionally impactful moments in Judgment at Nuremberg are the scenes depicting the testimonies and cross-examinations of Irene Hoffman (played by Garland) and Rudolph Petersen (Clift). We hear their personal accounts and the shame, indignity, and horrors each of them endured, and we’re reminded that every victim of the Holocaust had a name, a distinctive personality, and a life that was robbed of fullness.
  • The politicization of justice. The four German judges on trial were politically coerced to twist justice to align with the edicts and philosophies of evil leaders. It’s ironic, then, that the three tribunals in this story are also coerced to render verdicts that fit the politics of the time, including Cold War pressures to be lenient on the Germans, viewed as important allies against communist countries.

Similar works

  • Inherit the Wind
  • Witness for the Prosecution
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Paths of Glory
  • The Caine Mutiny
  • 12 Angry Men
  • Nuremberg (2000)

Other films by Stanley Kramer

  • Inherit the Wind
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  • On the Beach
  • It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
  • The Defiant Ones
  • (As producer) Champion, Home of the Brave, High Noon, Death of a Salesman

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