Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 26, 2004)
Most history books provide little information about the Nuremberg trials. These started in October 1945 and lasted until the summer of 1946 in Nuremberg, a symbolic choice since it had hosted many successful Nazi rallies. Representatives of the four main Allied powers (the United States, England, the Soviet Union and France) tried 21 Nazi officials, and in October 1946, 11 of these Germans were put to death by hanging. More trials followed in later years, but none would take on subjects as famous as those judged in the first session; Nazi bigwigs like Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, and Rudolf Hess were present at that time.
Although Iíve always been interested in World War II history, I knew little about the trials, mainly because the books Iíve read didnít offer much coverage of them. In Martin Gilbertís splendid The Second World War: A Complete History, he only devotes a few paragraphs of the 846-page tome to these trials. During 1249 pages of William Shirerís seminal The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the events get a little more attention; Shirer fills two full pages with notes.
I donít mention the brevity of these comments to slight the writers, really, as their works are absolutely terrific; Rise and Fall remains one of the most compelling books Iíve ever read. However, I did want to remark upon the paucity of printed material available about the Nuremberg trials.
Surprisingly, those events have proved a bit more popular with filmmakers. In addition to a few documentaries, the trials have inspired two movie adaptations. The initial attempt to gain justice in 1945 and 1946 was the subject of a 2000 cable miniseries called Nuremberg. For an examination of the subsequent trials, we go back to 1961ís Oscar-nominated Judgment at Nuremberg.
Set in 1948, we see the arrival of American Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy). As noted, the tribunalís already gotten through the more prominent Nazis, so they now deal with justice for lower level collaborators and civilians. Haywood presides over the trial of four German judges who legalized Nazi atrocities: Emil Hahn (Werner Kemperer), Friedrich Hoffstetter (Martin Brandt), Werner Lammpe (Torben Meyer), and Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster).
All four plead ďnot guiltyĒ, though Janning relates through his counsel that he doesnít recognize the authority of the court. We meet the head of the prosecution, American Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), and defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). Lawson holds the judges responsible for the abuses that they helped legitimize, while Rolfe defends them on the grounds that they simply carried out the laws but didnít make them. We learn how the judges had to turn into rubber stamps under Hitler, and how they authorized the increased use of death penalty as well as sexual sterilization.
The movie mostly follows the trial, as the two sides duke it out, but we also see some material outside of the courtroom. Haywood stays in the house of Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), whoís now displaced. Haywood meets her when she stops by to get some things, and he chats with the house staff to get a better feel for what it was like to live under the Nazis. While much of the film remains in the courtroom, we also see Haywoodís explorations of German culture and his global attempt to understand what happened under the Nazis.
As I expressed when I first reviewed Das Boot, I feel somewhat uneasy with projects that depict Nazis in sympathetic ways. I donít say this because I think that every Nazi was one-size-fits-all evil, but I do think a certain level of malevolence infected everyone who cooperated with the Third Reichís schemes. Because of that, I donít feel terribly comfortable with examinations of the Germans that might seem to let them off the hook.
On the other hand, I understand that the participants bought into things to varying degrees. Some went along gleefully with Hitlerís concepts, while others claimed to simply do what they were told. Others actively despised the policies but cooperated because they couldnít do anything else to survive.
Itís easy for us to say that we wouldnít do the same, that when confronted with obvious evil we would stand up for what we see as right. However, few of us ever went through that form of test so we canít truly say what we would do. When faced with our own extermination and/or the deaths of those close to us, itís tough to be sure what we would do.
Those concepts fall behind the point of view expressed in Judgment. It walks a fine line between sympathy for some of the former Nazis and absolute condemnation of them. The movie strives hard to portray positive aspects of the German society but also to let us see the horrors as well. One minute we might watch Judge Haywood as he enjoys the German culture, while in the next, we examine graphic footage from the concentration camps.
This movement from positive to negative could render Judgment as wishy-washy and inconsistent, but it doesnít. Instead, it lends the flick a tone of depth that most films of this sort lack. It gives us Haywoodís point of view well. As he opens himself to try to understand how the Germans could have done what they did, we get all the different elements as well.
Those parts work partially due to the even-tempered presence of Tracy. The entire cast performs well, but he really helps ground the piece. He makes the judge open-minded and fair but never dithering or indecisive.
Not everything about Judgment flies. To avoid spoilers, I wonít go into the details, but one scene moderately late in the film ties things up a little too neatly and removes some of the moral ambiguity that I liked so much. The movie still makes excellent points, but the scene in question renders the dilemmas a little more toothless.
Judgment at Nuremberg probably could stand some trimming as well, for at more than three hours, it gets a bit logy at times. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the movie succeeds. It tells an important story with clarity but without heavy-handed or moralizing techniques, and those allow it to become involving and thought-provoking.