Tuesday, February 24

Good 60s Films: Judgment at Nuremberg

1961 Historical Drama
From United Artists
Directed by Stanley Kramer

Spencer Tracy
Burt Lancaster
Richard Widmark
Marlene Dietrich
Maximilian Schell
Judy Garland
Montgomery Clift
William Shatner
Werner Klemperer
Ray Teal
Virginia Christine

I just now finished watching it again.  While I am writing it under the banner of good 60s movies, I regard it as a great one... and on several levels.  It tells a piece of history and it tells it well.  It taps into social conscience.  If others don't care for it as much as I, it may well be because it is depressing... of that there is no doubt.  I noticed how little smiling (let's not even consider laughter) any of the characters engage in.  As I turned the film off, I connected to how relevant its message is today especially as it relates to bullying.

The film's greatness is in no small measure due to its stellar cast.  About a half dozen of these folks are Hollywood royalty if not acting geniuses.  The beautiful words that Abby Mann has given them bring the screen alive.  Three of them (Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark) I have written about earlier and the others shall come in due time.

Judgment at Nuremberg is arguably considered Stanley Kramer's signature film.   As I also said in an earlier piece on him, he loved his message movies.  The stories he became enamored of had to speak to him on a social or political level.  He didn't mind ruffling feathers.  He sought an audience's attention, not necessarily their agreement.

Mann had written an earlier version that was presented on television's esteemed Playhouse 90.  Maximilian Schell and Werner Klemperer were also a part of that cast.  Kramer was zealous to make a film out of the property.  He and I certainly agreed on one thing... we both loved courtroom dramas.  (He and Tracy had just completed Inherit the Wind... based on the Scopes trial.)  But Kramer also thought the story of the 1947 real trials should be told again, this time on the big screen.

Overall the trials were about war crimes, crimes against humanity and there had never been such trials before.  While in truth 99 judges and prosecutors were tried, this film is about the second of the  trials which zeroed in on four member of the Nazi judiciary.  While the screenplay certainly delves into the persecution and genocide of European Jews, it focuses more so on these judges.  At issue is whether they actively or passively enforced laws which led to imprisonment, torture or death of innocent people for their religions, race, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual preferences or physical disabilities.  Did they side with the Third Reich instead of justice?  Did they not know what happened to the people they found guilty as they say?  Moreover, will the trial become one against the German people, who also claimed they were unaware of the tragic consequences?

It was not a foregone conclusion the jurists would be found guilty because of an adherence to the belief that there's no Emily Post or Robert's Rules of Order during war.  Could these judges get off by way of a lecture that there must be moral compromise during war?  Tracy, as the head judge, feels he must weigh justice against political expediency.

This would be the second of four films Kramer and Spencer Tracy would do together.  By all accounts, the two men were very close friends and colleagues.  Once said, Tracy was not the first choice for the part of the head American jurist Dan Haywood, Laurence Olivier was.  But when Olivier's current film couldn't be wrapped up, Kramer turned to his pal Tracy.  I call this one of Tracy's sit-down movies.  He sits, he listens (no actor listened better than Spencer Tracy) and he then wraps it all up with many lines of important truths.  He lent a credibility, a forcefulness that the role required and yet one knows the man is troubled with the weight of his decision-making.  I am not alone when I say he is one of the best American actors ever... maybe the very best.  He nabbed an Oscar nomination for his sterling portrayal.

Maximilian Schell was riveting in his turn as defense attorney Hans Rolfe who wants the world to share the blame with Germany. He was searing in his prosecution of Judy Garland's character.  His sparring with prosecution attorney Richard Widmark was great.  But oddly enough, I don't think he should have won an Oscar for Best Actor.  Between him and Tracy, I'd give it to Tracy.  Schell might have been better placed in the best supporting actor category.  While he is Lancaster's defender, they have differences on screen... and apparently off screen as well.  I'm not siding with Schell and I scarcely know much about him but I do know Lancaster was testy on a great many of his movies.

Lancaster was occasionally cast against type... and here is one of those times.  Ernst Janning is soft-spoken, somewhat meek, keeps his own counsel.  Does that sound like ol' Burt?   Most of his scenes are little more than reaction shots or looking down but he lights up the affair with a time in the witness chair.  His character has the most remorse.

He was originally wanted for the Widmark role of the prosecuting attorney but he chose the smaller role of Janning.  When he came on board, he did so because production on The Birdman of Alcatraz had shut down temporarily.  Judgment would only require six weeks of his time and he had the promise that he could film his part in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (where the entire film was shot except for some second-unit location shots).  He had been nominated for an Oscar for Elmer Gantry and was feeling his oats.  It's amazing he accepted second billing but he made up for it by demanding that any likeness of Tracy in any ads is to include himself at the same size.  The same applied to the size of letters of their names.  Lancaster always needed his pound of flesh.  His character's about-face acceptance of the collective guilt of his nation is the climax of the film.

Richard Widmark immeasurably added to any film he was in.  In addition to Kramer originally wanting Lancaster for the role of Col. Tad Lawson, the prosecuting attorney, when he turned it down, it was offered to Lancaster's From Here to Eternity costar, Montgomery Clift.  He thought it would be too weighty for him to do.  Widmark brought a cynicism and a hard core edge to the part that was needed.  He and Tracy were pals from their days of appearing as father and son in the 1954 western, Broken Lance.

Widmark's character, who wants to indict the entire nation, is the one responsible for showing graphically-filmed scenes (newsreel footage) of the atrocities in the camps and while they certainly give the film the edge that is needed, they are incredibly difficult to watch.

Except for a final scene sitting in the courtroom to hear the verdict, Marlene Dietrich's scenes were filmed elsewhere.  She played Mrs. Bertholt, the widow of a German military man.  Her scenes were with Tracy and he was one of the two reasons she accepted the part when Kramer told her she must play it.  I thought their pairing was a revelation though they certainly did come from different schools of acting.  She later said he was the only really admirable actor with whom I've worked.  Despite her American citizenship, she was pure German through and through.  She despised Hitler and passionately believed the guilt firmly laid at the feet of the German people.  Interestingly, her character believed otherwise.  Maximilian Schell, who got to know her better later in life, said that with all her worldly ways, she was still a Prussian hausfrau at heart.  Judgment at Nuremberg would be her last great role.

Judy Garland had three scenes and was so wonderful in them that she was nominated for a supporting Oscar.  She had not made a film since her exciting turn 1954's A Star Is Born, for which she was also Oscar-nominated.  She was deeply in debt and not looking her best and the $50,000 salary she badly needed.  She was quite plump and rundown at the time but that was just what the part required.  She was nervous to be in front of the cameras again but she was welcomed by the entire cast.  Playing German Irene Hoffman, she is accused of cavorting with her landlord, an elderly Jew, when she was a teenager.  It was a lie but he was killed and she was sent to prison for awhile.  Her testimony is to further expose Lancaster's character.  It was a heart-breaking performance.  She and Lancaster would next make A Child Is Waiting for Kramer.

An equally heart-breaking performance came from Montgomery Clift, who after declining the Widmark role, said he would like to play the part of Rudolph Peterson, a feeble-minded Jew who was sterilized by the Nazis.  He would work only one day in one scene and would take no salary.  But oh my, what a scene.  The actor brought his own haunted look to the part and for those in the know, it was hard to separate Clift from Peterson.  By the time he made this film, Clift was a broken man, rife with drink and drugs, given to hallucinations, unable to remember many of his lines.  When he panicked, Tracy told him to just play to me and Clift rallied.  A couple of years earlier Clift had made Suddenly Last Summer with Katharine Hepburn, so Tracy was well aware of the actor's troubles and was very kind to him.  Clift would also receive a supporting Oscar nomination.

In addition to the Clift, Garland and Tracy nominations and Schell's win for best actor, Abby Mann also won for best screenplay.  Other Oscar nominations were for cinematography, art & set design, costuming, editing, directing and best picture.

The film's release was timed with the trial and conviction in Israel of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.

Take a peek at the trailer:

The Directors


  1. Ciao Rob, I'm trying again: Judgment in Nuremberg is worth while. It belongs to that category of film which have been able to cut my heart in pieces. Only one can be compared to itr: Schinler's List.
    Judgment at Nuremberg has nothing that is not perfect and there is not one actor starting from Tracy ( a GIANT) and going on with Clift, Garland, and all the others, there is not one who did not deserv e an Oscar. And an Oscar to You too, Rob, for havin done such a wonderful work. Thanks a lot. Ciao. Carlo

  2. Love those intense courtroom dramas. This one, in exposing the Nazi atrocities and cover up (who knew?), was one of the best.

  3. Love your blog, but Olivier was to be Yanning. Tracy was always marked for the role of the judge.

  4. Well, um, er, your note is just the kind I always hope not to get, but here you are. And of course you are right. I think I had it right in some notes I took for this posting and this film but I got things fuzzy at the actual writing. So thanks. So glad you love my blog. Please continue to keep me on my toes.

  5. Great film! I agree, Tracy should have won an Oscar, but Schell is marvelous and powerful as well. And this is Widmark's best work. And such interesting turns by Garland and Clift, and Dietrich is just perfect.

    I LOVE Stanley Kramer...of course I own this film, and just bought On the Beach after seeing it 500 times...

    Enjoying your blog very very much.