JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (Stanley Kramer, 1961)

A shallow, stupid film, producer-director Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg is also compulsively watchable—a lightheaded entertainment about the Holocaust and international justice, with musical interludes. It’s a silly film, to be sure, but, given the gravity of the issues it touches upon, it’s a deeply offensive one, too. The script, by Abby Mann, is based on his television play. Mann and Kramer, then, share blame for this thoughtless, careless, meaningless movie. Were it not for three good performances from an otherwise grotesque all-star cast, and some pretty costumes by Jean-Louis, the film would be a complete joke. As it is, it’s best watched while guzzling German beer or downing Russian potato vodka.

The film takes place in 1948, toward the end of the twelve trials begun by the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in the mostly undamaged Palace of Justice in Nürnberg (Nuremberg), Germany, following the Allied victory in World War II. Beginning in 1945, the trials had already condemned to the hangman’s noose top Nazi officials, German military leaders and others who had participated in crimes against humanity, including the Holocaust. These included Alfred Rosenberg, whose theories of Aryan racial superiority and non-Aryan pollution had ideologically fueled the Third Reich, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Hermann Göring, Commander of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), who, following the path of his bunkered Führer, committed suicide the night before the date of his appointed execution. Some others received life- and lesser sentences. Presiding over the first trial had been the lead Soviet judge, Iola Nikitchenko, who had also participated in Stalin’s show trials of 1936-1938. It was not for this alone that the IMT lacked credibility in the eyes of many observers, not just Germans. According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia on the Internet, “The trials were conducted under their own rules of evidence[,] the indictments were created ex post facto and were not based on any nation’s law . . .[,] and the entire spirit of the assembly [could be characterized as] ‘victor’s justice.’” Some saw the IMT as little more than a kangaroo court.

Although they had a major impact on international criminal law, it would appear that the trials have done little since to rein in humanity’s appetite for inhumanity. The mass murder of non-Aryans, especially Jews, that the Nazis devised as the “Final Solution” has found a recent echo in “ethnic cleansing,” an equally euphemistic term for similar state practices motivated by the same sense of group superiority and a lack of empathy for others. However, the great achievement of the Nuremberg trials lay in its airing of the Holocaust, bringing the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews to worldwide attention. (In addition, five million Gentiles died in German death camps.) Describing the testimony of Rudolf Höss, commandant at Auschwitz, law professor Douglas Linder states, for instance, the following: “H[ö]ss’s matter-of-fact account of mass executions using Zyklon B gas—sometimes 10,000 inmates killed in a single day—left many in the courtroom stunned.” And this: “Marie Claude Vallant-Couturier, a 33-year-old French woman, provided particularly powerful testimony about what she saw at Auschwitz in 1942. Vallant-Couturier described how a Nazi orchestra played happy tunes as soldiers separated those destined for slave labor from those that would be gassed. She told of a night she was ‘awakened by horrible cries. The next day we learned that the Nazis had run out of gas and the children had been hurled into the furnaces alive.’” The trials, then, proved highly and harrowingly educative. There may even be an implicit contextualizing connection being made by Mann and Kramer, for the date of the trial covered in their film, 1948, coincides with the creation of the modern state of Israel.

The trial in Judgment at Nuremberg is that of judges—those who implemented the inhuman laws of the Third Reich. In reality, there were sixteen defendants; for the sake of dramatic compression, there are four in the film. The film is a highly fictionalized account of the trial, and this includes all the participants versus their actual counterparts. All the judges are American, but this is accurate. By this time the other nations had withdrawn their participation, the Soviets, obviously, because of the Cold War that the U.S. had launched against its former ally. This and other late trials had even less credibility than the earlier ones; there was greater consensus that the individuals now being prosecuted should not be tried—a fact that the film notes. Disclosures about the Holocaust had ceased. Only American vanity, the flexing of the unparalleled power that the outcome of the war (including the holocaustic way the U.S. had concluded the war in the Pacific) had brought the United States, accounted for these late trials. One would never guess this from the film.

How responsible were judges for what happened in Germany? What was their degree of culpability? I am against capital punishment and have been so all my life, but not once did it ever occur to me that American justices who legally sentence men and women to death in the U.S. should be imprisoned, for instance, once (as will happen, one hopes) this form of state murder becomes illegal in the future. One weighs against this, though, the fact that voices raised in protest against inhuman acts gather a political strength by their number, and this is compounded by the height of the position that the protesters occupy in the official order. Thus law professor Michael Asimov, co-author of the book Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies, earnestly asks: “What if many judges had resisted the Nazis instead of pandering to them? Could the Holocaust have been prevented?” More than likely, such judges would themselves have become defendants. This is not to say that judges shouldn’t have raised their voices even at the risk of death; but at the very least they found themselves in a quandary—but not in Mann and Kramer’s smug, sanctimonious film.

All four defendants are found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, although a postscript discloses that by 1961, when the film was made, of the 99 defendants sentenced to prison terms during the all-American phase of post-IMT prosecutions none are still behind bars. The implication is that this is plain awful. Whether one agrees perhaps depends on whether one agrees with the final exchange, in his prison cell, between one of the defendants, Ernst Janning, and Chief Judge Dan Haywood. Janning, speaking from his heart, tells Haywood, “Those millions of people [who perished in the Holocaust]—I never knew it would come to that,” to which Haywood replies, “It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.” I submit that this fanciful, rigged and rhetorical moment doesn’t admit the rigor of thought, which would require that Haywood explain—at least to us—how Janning’s sentencing any defendant to death led to the Holocaust. I suppose that Haywood means this, somehow, metaphorically, even mystically perhaps, but the film fails to draw a logical line of causality. To make sense, it needs to draw that line.

This brings us to the Feldenstein case, to which Haywood is presumably referring when he mentions Janning’s having “sentenced to death a man [he] knew to be innocent.” This was the Katzenberger case, which Oswald Rothaug, one of the Nuremberg defendants, decided in 1942. Katzenberger, 67, rented an apartment to Irene Seiler, 30 (Irene Hoffman, in the film); he was Jewish, and she was not. The two became close friends, although they both denied having a sexual relationship and no evidence presented at trial refuted this. Nevertheless, Katzenberger was found guilty under the blood protection law prohibiting Jews from even kissing Aryans. Other charges helped contribute to the death sentence that Rothaug imposed on Katzenberger. A repulsive suggestion arises in Kramer’s film because of the supposedly causal connection between Janning’s sentencing of Feldenstein and the Holocaust—a connection, as I have said, that is insisted upon but never specifically argued or explained. Feldenstein’s “innocence” is a reprehensible construct because it inadvertently implies that, had Feldenstein and Hoffman actually been lovers, then the Holocaust might be validated. There was no basis for Mann or Kramer to draw the connection that they did, and the fact that they present no arguments on behalf of the ridiculous idea, even weak ones, suggests that they themselves knew this—unless, of course, they took seriously the sleight of words in which Haywood indulges vis-à-vis Janning. Clearly the implications of their own film are out of their control.

What they ought to have stressed is something that their film scantly mentions: the pernicious idea of racial—in this case, Aryan—purity that motivated both the blood protection law and the Holocaust. I anticipate your protest: But that would have been an issue addressed at the earlier, IMT trials. Regardless, it’s the pertinent connection here, even if ideological rather than causal, and Mann and Kramer’s bizarre claim for some other kind of connection distracts even their own attention, diverting it from a consideration of the sick notions of Aryan superiority and racial purity. It seems so important to them to establish that Feldenstein and Hoffman weren’t lovers, that there wasn’t at least a sexual element to their relationship, that it almost seems as if they’re arguing in support of the notion of Jewish purity of heart—an idea as offensive as the ones they should be addressing insofar as (however inadvertently) it gives rise to the logical implication that Jewish right-to-life is predicated on Jewish moral perfection. The horror of the Holocaust, apart from the sheer number of victims, is that people were murdered only because of what they were and what they weren’t. The horror of the Holocaust lies in the intolerance and lack of empathy that this indicates. It would appear that Mann and Kramer never once sat down together to sound out the ideas of Mann’s script. Perhaps it’s in this context that Pauline Kael found Mann’s acceptance of his Oscar on behalf of all intellectuals “excrutiating.”

The central drama of Judgment at Nuremberg is one of character: the shifting opinion of Haywood, who (rightly) begins by presuming the innocence of the defendants, especially Janning, but ends up condemning all four on all counts. In this three-hour movie, not one scene, not one moment, is devoted to showing, or stating, or even implying what effected the change in this position of his. What evidence is presented at trial verifies the ugly nature of a bench decision or two, and certainly verifies (in documentary footage that shames Kramer’s fictional contribution) Nazi evil; but it falls woefully short of Kramer’s own standard, as Haywood’s comment to Janning posits it, of this elusive causal connection between how judges ruled, according to the prevalent law, and what ultimately happened in the death camps. (Asimov suggests that German judges extended and deepened the laws beyond their original intent; but this is nowhere mentioned in the film.) We get the “before” and the “after” of Haywood’s transformative journey, but nothing of the journey itself, not even a summary by Haywood. That’s what makes this film so phony, and we have every right to feel we have been set up once the “before” has become the “after” with no hint of any “in between.”

If we make allowance for the fact that his role, as a consequence of all this, makes no sense, we may still be impressed by Spencer Tracy’s finely inflected performance as Haywood, which is most behaviorally rich and touching in his encounters with Marlene Dietrich’s Madame Bertholt, the widow of an executed Nazi general. Dietrich contributes the most beautiful performance; she was given the best lines (“Do you think we are all monsters?”), her role is much more complex than any other (that of an aristocrat, both proud and vulnerable, whose principal objection to Hitler is that he was bourgeois) and, gloriously gifted, she is up to the challenge. She hauntingly renders Bertholt’s broken spirit after the verdicts have come down from the bench. Maximilian Schell, Maria’s younger brother, completes the trio of worthy performances, playing the lead defense attorney, Hans Rolfe. Although the role has to be accounted brief even as a supporting one and is uncomplicated (we never see the character apart from his job), Schell won a best actor Oscar for his lightning-quick delivery of Rolfe’s well researched arguments. There’s nothing studied about this relatively early performance of his (Schell was 31). Schell would go on to direct many films himself, including Marlene (1984), the famous documentary about his friend, Dietrich.

All the other actors are some degree of terrible. Richard Widmark, so wonderful in No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) and Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959), gives a strained performance as the prosecuting attorney, Colonel Tad Lawson, based, I presume, on Robert H. Jackson. (It includes an especially unconvincing drunk scene.) Far worse is Burt Lancaster, who plays Ernst Janning, whose every utterance is arch and unconvincing, and whose makeup is howlingly unconvincing. Years later, Kramer explained that he had tried unsuccessfully to secure the services of the actor who had originated the role in the TV broadcast: Laurence Olivier. I’m not moved; between one of the greatest actors who ever lived and one of the worst imaginable, Kramer ought to have been able to find someone who could at least speak lines without provoking either irritation or a case of the giggles. Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland, as a mentally challenged man whom the Nazis sterilized and Irene Hoffman, are pathetic; both of them emote rather than act. Indeed, both had fallen so far below their exceptional work in 1948, he in Red River (Howard Hawks) and she in Easter Parade (Charles Walters), that one sees and feels sorry for them, not for the characters they are supposed to be playing. A young William Shatner, flat-tummied as Haywood’s aide, at least is likeable.

His filmmaking shows that Kramer hadn’t the faintest idea how to use the camera to make meaningful disclosures. Instead, he moves it, or employs its zoom lens, merely to break the monotony of the same-set courtroom-stuff. Moreover, some of the early-on process photography, because the film insists on its literal realism rather than finding an appropriate form of aesthetic distancing, is hokey in the extreme. The black-and-white cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, waxes poetic whenever Dietrich appears, and I don’t blame him one bit.

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One thought on “JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (Stanley Kramer, 1961)

  1. I think you’re a bit too hard on the film, though I have to admit I just saw it the other day for the first time. I found your review upon searching for any articles regarding the authenticity of the picture. I thought Montgomery Clift was particularly effective, though I’ll concede that Judy Garland seemed as interested as set dressing in her role. While the photography wasn’t all that inspired, I found much of the panning and zooming to actually enhance the storytelling. I think there were some very solid sequences in the courtroom, in particular. Dietrich seemed a bit too cold for me; I took her despondence (sp?) — refusing to answer the telephone call in the ending — to be more anti-American sentiment than anything else, hardly a portrayal of broken spirit. If there was one trait I picked up on her in her few scenes, it was that she much didn’t care what anyone thought of her, her husband, etc., so why would she have some grand epiphany over Haywood’s bench decision? I do agree that there could have been greater exploration of Haywood’s dealing with these events, b/c there was very little. He seemed to suddenly fixate on the idea of getting to understand the German people (I’m thinking of the kitchen scenes, the out-and-about scenes, etc.), but there was no real follow-up to elements introduced there thematically. At one point, I think the script clearly hinted at a romantic connection between him and Madame Bertholt, but I didn’t see enough substance there to believe that a real relationship was even remotely probably.

    As to the ending screen text? I’m not so sure that Kramer intended for audiences to be aghast by learning that no one remained behind bars. I saw that more of a reflective comment about societies as a whole — that with the passage of time, atrocities (sp?) are forgotten, not necessarily forgiven — and not an attempt to boil someone’s blood over the entire issue. Could be wrong, but that’s my quick take.

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