Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Genre: Drama and Legal Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 59 min.

Release Date: December 19th, 1961 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stanley Kramer Actors: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, Kenneth MacKenna, Werner Klemperer




t’s 1948 when, in Nuremberg, Germany, Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) surveys the considerable infrastructure destruction caused by the war as he’s driven, along with Senator Burkette (Edward Binns), to the sizable estate where they’ll stay – taken over from an important Nazi general and his wife. There, he meets his assigned aide, Captain Harrison Byers (William Shatner), who briefs him on the routines. The U.S. judge has been brought all the way from Maine to preside over one of the most important cases the world will ever witness, yet it’s a thankless job that many before him passed over and many others deemed unnecessary – or controversial.

“Hitler is gone. Goebbels is gone. Goering is gone. Committed suicide before they could hang. Now we’re down to the business of judging the doctors, the businessmen, and judges.” Though the tribunal is comprised of Americans, the first group of defendants are German judges, several of whom refuse to recognize the proceedings as legitimate. And though their actions for the Third Reich may have been legal at the time (they didn’t physically beat victims or pull levers to release gas into chambers, but they signed documents that effected as much), the charges are for murder, brutalities, torture, and atrocities; they embraced the ideologies of the Nazis rather than fighting for justice, and must be held responsible for emboldening such crimes against humanity.

In this courtroom, a code of justice the whole world can recognize and agree upon must be determined. After all, judges do not make laws; they carry out the laws of the country. To do otherwise would be traitorous. So can they be held accountable for merely doing their jobs? Or is this whole ordeal simply revenge to instigate political murder?

The room is full of headsets and microphones and translators (aided by lightbulbs to request pauses for translations), though these details are soon dispensed with in favor of artistically segueing into an understanding that the actors here will only speak English – for convenience to the audience. The film is also not wholly focused on the trial itself; there’s time for Haywood to tour the city, take in the sights, and sample the food. Supplemented by patriotic tunes, he also spies some iconic buildings and settings – areas haunted by the ghosts of great evil. He additionally interviews commoners who are reluctant to reveal the extent of their knowledge concerning Hitler’s horrors, opting rather to mention that many things were good – such as employment numbers and the construction of the autobahn. “If we did know, what could we do?” In scenes with the German judges in prison, denial becomes the key weapon to deflect the scope of the monstrousness; ignorance is an easy ally when confronted by such colossal accusations. Only a handful of extremists must be blamed.

After the rise of National Socialism in 1933, German courts and their judges essentially had to turn over their independence and power to the dictatorship; their ability to remain objective disappeared. Instead, the justice system was utilized to remove ethnic and political undesirables. One of the primary figures under scrutiny here is Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a mostly silent, expressionless, remorseless man, resolute in his own innocence. And his stance is backed by lawyer Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), essentially a public defender, equally as defiant in his position that accountability should not fall on mere followers – even if other authorities define them as culpable leaders.

“Responsibility is not a cut and dried thing.” Like many of the best legal thrillers, “Judgment in Nuremberg” boasts heated arguments, the tearing down of witnesses, spontaneous outbursts, emphatic objections, surprise witnesses, profound revelations, and breathtaking speeches. The back-and-forth battles, primarily conducted by Rolfe and chief prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), are absolutely gripping. And they’re bolstered by an all-star ensemble cast, including Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland. The performances are convincing, weighty, and stunning.

With a running time surpassing three hours, “Judgment at Nuremberg” is, appropriately, adorned with an overture at the start, though there is no entr’acte or intermission (though there is exit music). Unfortunately, the pacing could have been tighter, particularly as Haywood is designed to represent a wider view than just the trial; he speaks with a number of peripheral figures, discusses the case with fellow Americans, and even attends a piano concert. The intent is to paint the German people as more than just the enemy during a world war, as multifaceted participants or even outright unwilling players, but it’s obvious that the Nazi judges on trial are the villains – or at least the designated antagonists. Later, archival footage summarizing unspeakable heinousness further adds to the length, though these sequences are so powerfully devastating that they’re far from extraneous. And then there are the political implications of convicting German leaders when the support of the people is needed to stabilize the region.

Directed by Stanley Kramer – no stranger to heavy-hitting, topical, timeless dramas – this epic courtroom showdown is historical, educational, and shocking (a lot of fictional characters and components are presented, though many substitute for real-life equivalencies). Fortunately, it’s also quite entertaining. Judgment against a handful of men is a difficult concept when so many people (ultimately countless) were involved in the rise of Hitler and the war that followed. Former precedents and decisions by only three presiding judges likewise can’t possibly be sufficient in determining the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. “It is not easy to tell the truth.”

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10