Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Warner Bros. - Europe, 1945. The war is over, but the battle for justice is about to begin.
Twenty-one members of the Nazi high command stand in a charged courtroom inside Nuremberg's Palace of Justice. Twenty-one pleas of "Not Guilty" are entered. Will the trial of these notorious men be a forum for Allied vengeance or a quest for justice? Based on Joseph E. Persico's acclaimed book Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial and featuring momentous dialogue taken from case transcripts, Nuremberg is a compelling courtroom drama about the post-World War II Trial of the Century. Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy, Christopher Plummer, Brian Cox and Max von Sydow star in this vivid work filled with intellectual fire and righteous courage.
|Cast:||Alec Baldwin, Brian Cox, Matt Craven, Jill Hennessy, Michael Ironside, Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow|
|DVD:||Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 53 chapters; Not Rated; 180 min.; $19.98; street date 1/16/01.|
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. 21 Nazi officials were tried by representatives of the four main Allied powers (the United States, England, the Soviet Union and France), 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 I’ve always been interested in World War II history, I knew little about the trials, mainly because the books I’ve read didn’t offer much coverage of them. In Martin Gilbert’s 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 Shirer’s seminal The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the events get a little more attention; Shirer fills two full pages with notes.
I don’t 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 I’ve 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 first came with 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. However, that film looked at later sessions of the court, not at the first events. Although many think that Nuremberg is a remake of the 1961 picture, that’s definitely not the case. That initial attempt to gain justice in 1945 and 1946 is the subject of a recent cable miniseries called Nuremberg, a moderately successful retelling of the trials.
Nuremberg is told largely from an American point of view. Our main protagonist is Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin), hand-picked by the president to lead the trials. He’s aided by his sexy young assistant Elsie Douglas (Jill Hennessy) and a crew of others, including military psychologist - and token Jewish character - Captain Gilbert (Matt Craven) and British prosecutor Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (Christopher Plummer).
However, it’s really Jackson’s show, as the movie treats the trials as his to make or break. Maxwell-Fyfe has little to do with the story, and Gilbert exists mainly to give the Nazis a convenient Jew to despise; he tries to get into the heads of the Germans but these attempts are treated briefly and without much enthusiasm.
Of the Nazi criminals, the emphasis is strongly placed upon the plump and less-than-recalcitrant Goering (Brian Cox). He offers the hissable villain that the audience wants, though we also get a more thoughtful and penitent German through Speer (Herbert Knaup). I guess Speer’s supposed to add balance to the program so we can see that not all of the Nazis were evil bastards, at least not after they got caught.
However, the movie has little patience for Speer’s wimpy mewlings when we can see gruff and blustery Goering. Actually, the film has little patience for much of anything that relates to the actual trials. Rather than provide an adequate retelling of the legal events, Nuremberg travels the standard TV flick path. This means that the tension between Jackson and Goering is pumped up to prodigious levels, and it also means that we get a romance between Baldwin and Douglas.
Both Jackson and Douglas are based on their real-life models, but I have no idea if any such dalliance took place, and frankly, I don’t care. The topic seems inappropriate for a film of this sort, and it trivializes the material. In fact, it just feels like sop for the stereotypical female audience. The filmmakers already “younged down” both Jackson and Douglas and also made them much more attractive than their real-life counterparts. Through the transition from Jackson to Baldwin, the character went from 53 to 42, while Douglas lost 15 years in the move to Hennessy.
Honestly, I don’t care for those kinds of liberties. Sure, Baldwin and Hennessy are much better looking than were Jackson and Douglas, but that could have been irrelevant. Due to the unnecessary inclusion of their alleged romance, however, the reasons for the “physical improvements” become more clear. As such, I then resent the changes more than I otherwise would have. It seems to me that this story doesn’t need dodgy flirtation and Christmas party smooching. Shouldn’t the prosecution of some of the 20th century’s most vicious criminals have been enough?
I guess not, at least not for cable audiences. The relative lack of courtroom material is Nuremberg’s second greatest flaw, as it prefers to show us almost anything other than the actual proceedings. Yes, quite a lot of the movie does take place in the legal locale, but these instances felt forced, as if the filmmakers knew they had to show those parts but they didn’t really want to do so. Unless they got to display sufficiently provocative material, of course, such as footage shot by the Allies when they liberated the concentration camps.
I recognize that this point was historically correct - Jackson showed this material at the trial - but I don’t think the movie needed to focus on it to such a great extent. After a time, it seemed gratuitous and artificial, as though no one could figure out better ways to inject drama or pathos. A little of that kind of footage goes a long way, and Nuremberg provides too much of it.
As for the actors, they provide generally solid performances. Baldwin and Cox dominate. As the Justice, Baldwin feels a little milquetoast, but he offers a respectable turn. He appears likable enough, and he musters enough of the appropriate emotion at critical junctures to make his presence worthwhile.
However, Cox clearly gives the better performance. Though he was too fat for Goering at that point in his life - as related by Shirer, he’d lost lots of weight by the time of the trial - Cox nicely connects with the character’s arrogance and supreme sense of self-importance. Yes, many Nazis really believed what they shoveled, and Cox clearly displays these attitudes without making Goering a simple monster.
Despite my many problems with Nuremberg, I can’t call it a failure. In fact, it’s generally a fairly solid little examination of an important topic. I disliked the liberties it took with the subject and found that it provided too little emphasis on the matters at hand, but it was still a watchable exercise. It’s not a terribly good movie, but it’s competent, and at least it sheds some light on an oft-neglected area of history.
Nuremberg appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the film showed some occasional concerns, as a whole it presented a very solid picture.
Sharpness usually looked very crisp and well-defined. A little softness could affect some wider shots, but these occurred infrequently. For the most part, the image came across as clear and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no serious concerns, but print flaws looked surprisingly heavy for such a recent film. Throughout the movie, I detected moderate levels of grit, grain, and speckles plus a few examples of blotches and nicks. These never seemed tremendously heavy, but I thought they were too numerous for such a new movie.
Colors looked nicely clear and rich throughout the picture. Due to the subject matter, hues were kept fairly subdued, but they seemed true and clean nonetheless. Black levels were deep and rich, and shadow detail came across as appropriately dark but not excessively thick; all low-light scenes were easily discernible. All in all, the image of Nuremberg seemed very satisfying.
Also solid was the film’s Dolby Surround soundtrack. Although I’d prefer a mix that offered discrete surrounds, this affair seemed surprisingly involving. The forward channels provided clearly delineated sound that appeared accurately placed at all times. The audio also blended together well, and the sounds moved cleanly across the channels. The rears added very nice reinforcement of both effects and music, and they contributed an appropriate and active level of atmosphere. The soundfield doesn’t compare with effects-happy action flicks, but it worked quite well for this kind of film.
Audio quality also seemed excellent. Dialogue appeared natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were clear and realistic, and they showed solid dynamics without any distortion. Music came across as clean and deep, and the whole track displayed some very solid bass. Ultimately the mix offered a very good auditory experience.
I did note one technical problem with the Nuremberg DVD. It presented one of the roughest layer changes I’ve ever witnessed. This occurs at the 1:53:26 mark, and it really caused the program to hang on my Panasonic CV-50 player. The image froze for a couple of seconds, and then the movie jumped ahead eight seconds. Similar concerns occurred on my other two Panasonic players. On my DVD-ROM drive, the film doesn’t hang, but it still skipped ahead about eight seconds.
The DVD release of Nuremberg contributes a few minor supplements - very few, actually. “Behind the Scenes At Nuremberg” looks like it’ll provide some nice “making of” material, but instead we find nothing more than brief promotional snippets. Both “The Story” and “Alec Baldwin” run for a scant 110 seconds each, and they do little more than provide a glorified trailer for the movie; we learn exceptionally little about the film’s creation.
An actual trailer appears as well. However, this isn’t an ad that ran on TNT to promote the miniseries. Instead, it’s a promo for the video release itself. Lastly, “Cast and Crew” offers short biographies of Baldwin, Cox, Hennessy, Plummer, and Max Von Sydow; others are listed but no additional information about them appears.
Despite the lack of substantial supplements, Nuremberg makes for a decent little DVD. I wasn’t wild about the movie’s historical liberties and lack of emphasis on the actual trials, but it provides enough material to be generally satisfying. The DVD offers very solid picture and sound but fails to include any interesting extras. Nuremberg is a good appetizer for anyone who then would like to examine the topic in greater detail.