‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ Shows the Cost of Not Caring

Judgement at Nuremberg is a reminder that the courtroom drama is Hollywood’s most underrated and underused genre.

In Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1964 song “Universal Soldier”, individual responsibility for war is a significant theme. Referring to each soldier’s role in the Third Reich, Sainte-Marie asks, “but without him, how would Hitler have condemned them at Dachau?”

For those that are unfamiliar, Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazi Party in 1933. Over 30,000 people were murdered there. The victims were myriad, including European Jews, homosexuals, and political prisoners like Christian clergy that opposed the Nazi Party. Adolf Hitler and other top government officials had a vision of the world, but their vision could not have been realized without the participation of others. As a result, they can’t be the only ones to blame for the Nazi Party’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is the “universal soldier,” or each individual that knowingly participates, that is responsible.

Dachau is referenced in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning courtroom drama Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Like Sainte-Marie’s song, it investigates individual responsibility for war. The characters in the film were created by the filmmakers, but they are based on real people. Abby Mann’s screenplay is inspired by the Judges’ Trial before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals in 1947. Not to be confused with the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, the Judges’ Trial was part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, which were held before US military courts. Like the Trial of the Major War Criminals, the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials took place after World War II in the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.

In Judgment at Nuremberg, four judges are on trial for enforcing inhumane laws in Nazi Germany, including sexual sterilization and the execution of people on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, disability, and political ideology. An American Judge, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), presides over the tribunal that listens to the arguments by American prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). One of Rolfe’s defendants, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), is a well-educated and respected legal scholar, and Haywood tries to comprehend how a man of his stature could have enforced such heinous laws. When Haywood isn’t in the courtroom, he interacts with ordinary German citizens and wants to understand their mentality under Hitler’s rule. One such individual, Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), is a widow whose husband was executed by the Allies.

Judgement at Nuremberg, like any Hollywood period film, should not be a substitute for a history book, and I don’t think Kramer wants it to be. As a filmmaker, he’s more interested in the drama of the trials, such as the complex moral questions that are raised by the lawyers, or the emotional witnesses who tell their stories on the stand. Like Life is Beautiful (1997), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) uses dramatic storytelling to make sense of a painful past. These films may take historical liberties at times, but they are emotionally true nonetheless. For instance, Kramer incorporates actual footage of the Nazi concentration camps into the narrative; these harrowing images have more of an impact than any facts or figures ever could.

The film raises a number of complex questions about culpability. How do we prosecute a regime’s crimes after the regime has fallen? Hitler committed suicide on 20 April 1945 to avoid capture, but many Nazis under his leadership were still alive. To what degree should they be held accountable? Do we give them a somewhat mitigated sentence, when history tells us that some Germans were punished if they defied Hitler’s orders, or, conversely, do we acknowledge the other Germans that risked their lives to defy Hitler and hold each individual responsible for his or her participation? These are difficult questions, and every nation has to come to terms with them at some point.

At the very least, the Nuremberg Trials prosecuted the most prominent members of the Third Reich, and the film specifically focuses on judges that upheld inhumane laws. As the film illustrates, these individuals were educated before the Nazi Party came to power, and unlike younger Germans that came of age under Hitler, they couldn’t possibly have been brainwashed by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine. They knew better, and the film argues that those highest in command are always the most responsible for a government’s crimes.

Judgement at Nuremberg is a reminder that the courtroom drama is Hollywood’s most underrated and underused genre. At its best, the genre transforms the mundane minutia of the legal process into unabashed entertainment. We all instinctively know that court cases unfold rather monotonously in real life, and that most cases are mishandled by the professionals, yet courtroom dramas make us believe that the justice system can be riveting, rewarding, and even righteous. They force us to imagine a reality in which the courtroom can be a place where justice is served. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) will always be the best courtroom drama, but Judgement at Nuremberg rests comfortably near the top, along with 12 Angry Men (1957), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and The Verdict (1982).

The beautifully restored DVD comes with three featurettes, including a loving tribute to Kramer. For whatever reason, Kramer is rarely celebrated for his contributions to cinema, despite the many message movies he made for Hollywood in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) challenged American audiences to confront race relations, Inherent the Wind (1960) dared them to enter the creationism vs. evolution debate, and On the Beach (1959) forced them to face the effects of nuclear war after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Contemporary audiences may view these films through a cynical lens and sneer at their earnestness, but at the time, they were incredibly bold, and Kramer was one of the few Hollywood filmmakers that regularly rattled the status quo.

Dietrich’s presence in the film has significant symbolic meaning. The iconic German actress was a staunch opponent of the Nazi Party, and in 1939, she became an American citizen. She was one of the first Hollywood actresses to raise war bonds, and she performed many shows for the United Service Organizations during WWII.

Dietrich strongly believed in the film’s message, and her appearance, along with German actor Werner Klemperer, whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1935, and Austrian actor Schell, whose family fled Austria after its annexation in 1938, honor the courageous individuals that defied Hitler’s regime during the height of its power. Even as Kramer condemns the individuals responsible for the Nazi Party’s crimes, he is careful to remind us that their actions did not reflect the ideals of all Germans. Some Germans opposed the Nazi Party from the beginning, and this shows that we shouldn’t always judge a country’s people by its government.

At the same time, Kramer doesn’t absolve the Germans that stood idly by, nor does he let the rest of the world off the hook. In one powerful scene, Rolfe gives an impassioned speech about the “world’s guilt” for the Nazi Party’s crimes: “Germany alone is not guilty. The whole world is as responsible for Hitler’s Germany. It is an easy thing to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people, to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power, and at the same time, positively ignore the basic flaw that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, [and] American industrialists profit by him!”

With these words, Rolfe reminds us that the Holocaust couldn’t have occurred without the participation of many people in Germany, as well as the apathy of many people outside of Germany. Despite the best efforts of some righteous individuals that opposed the Nazi Party, the vast majority of the world didn’t care. Judgement at Nuremberg is essential, then, because it forces us to comprehend what human beings are capable of when they choose not to care.

RATING 9 / 10