THE EVENT THE WORLD WILL NEVER FORGET.
One of the most interesting and influential, but rarely discussed, TV shows of all time has to be Playhouse 90 (1956-1960). Over four years, this anthology series brought original TV plays into people’s living rooms, written and directed by some of the best in the business. Several of these plays were later adapted for the big screen, turning into movie classics in their own right. We had The Miracle Worker (1962) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), but above all there was Judgment at Nuremberg, an epic account of the trials against the Nazi authorities that took place in Germany right after World War II.
Four defendants in Nuremberg
About to preside over a three-judge panel, Chief Justice Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) arrives in Nuremberg after the war. This trial will focus on four defendants, judges and prosecutors who did their part in sending victims of Nazi Germany to the camps. The most prominent of the defendants is the legal scholar Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who doesn’t have much to say as the trial begins. The prosecutors introduce evidence of the Third Reich’s most atrocious crimes.
But Justice Haywood also meets regular German citizens outside of the courtroom who have different perspectives on their nation and the war, including the widow (Marlene Dietrich) of a general who was executed by the Allies.
Star-studded legal drama
The year before, Stanley Kramer made Inherit the Wind together with Spencer Tracy, a film about the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925. Both these legal dramas were typical of the director’s ”message movies”, superb adaptations with a star-studded cast that also happened to have something relevant to say. Kramer had his fair share of critics later in life, and I’m sure many will find this film in particular to be overly talky.
Still, it is an excellent production. Mainstream audiences were not used to seeing authentic footage from the Nazi death camps in a theater, but here we see dead bodies bulldozed into mass graves, accompanied by Richard Widmark’s prosecutor talking about how the Nazis used their Jewish victims after killing them. Very grim indeed; the film makes an effort trying to understand what motivated intelligent Germans to participate in this murderous regime but also illustrates how people suffered because of it. Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland deliver exceptionally strong performances, the latter her first onscreen appearance in seven years; they play a laborer who had been sterilized by the Nazis and a woman testifying about her friendship with a Jewish man. The whole cast is brilliant, including Schell as the forceful German defense attorney. Kramer and his team keep the duels in court lively and the fact that some of the scenes were actually shot in Nuremberg adds to the fact-based feel of the film. The script does not aim to portray real-life figures, even though there are similarities.
Above all, it is a fictionalized take on what’s known as the 1947 Judges’ Trial, where 16 German jurists faced justice. This may seem less interesting than the trial against top Nazi leaders like Göring, but it really is a more challenging case. The film effectively deals with questions such as where does one draw the line for war crimes, and what kind of responsibility does the German people as a whole carry?
One of the film’s most powerful moments is Lancaster’s testimony, explaining why he went along with the Nazi program. Eerily enough, it is an eloquent and timeless motivation for any fascist-leaning voter anywhere, regardless if you supported Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s or modern authoritarians like Putin and Trump. Everything returns in cycles.
Judgment at Nuremberg 1961-U.S. 178 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. Screenplay: Abby Mann. Cast: Spencer Tracy (Dan Haywood), Burt Lancaster (Ernst Janning), Richard Widmark (Tad Lawson), Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell… Montgomery Clift, William Shatner.
Trivia: Alternative version runs 186 min. Laurence Olivier was allegedly first cast as Janning. Later a Broadway play.
Quote: “There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb.” (Lancaster explaining the rise of Nazi Germany)
Oscars: Best Actor (Schell), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Director, Actor (Schell).
Last word: “Do you think United Artists wanted to make ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’, the story of a Nazi trial? They weren’t at all interested in those people in the ovens and the crooked judges. I studded it with stars to get it made as a film so that I would reach out to a mass audience.” (Kramer, “Conversations with the Great Movie-Makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute”)