Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Released roughly 40 years ago, the investigation into issues of patriotism and accountability in Judgment at Nuremberg resonates strongly with contemporary American politics. Screenwriter Abby Mann explains during one of the few short featurettes on the DVD, “The villain of Judgment of Nuremberg is patriotism. People did what they did because they were good patriots.” Similarly, as recent events in Iraq have shown, the American public today confronts first-hand how the patriotic rhetoric of “liberation” and “democracy” set in motion a war that seems to be fostering results far from its intended purpose.

Nuremberg director Stanley Kramer is no stranger to politically controversial films, as his earlier exposé of racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) and investigation into nuclear holocaust in On the Beach (1959) have shown. In Nuremberg Kramer and Mann focus on the lesser-known trials of Nazi judges rather than politicians and/or military personnel. These judges were prosecuted for sentencing innocent people to death for their political beliefs and ethnic heritage.

By interrogating the degree of culpability that should be assigned to all of the followers of Nazism, Judgment at Nuremberg poses complex and prickly questions for viewers. In essence, Mann and Kramer’s film considers the accountability of all citizens who acquiesce to their government’s corrupt actions. McCarthyism is implicitly condemned within the film’s critique of the judges who act out of specific political allegiances.

The plot of the film is structured as a typical courtroom melodrama. Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) presides over the trial of four Nazi judges. Of particular interest to Haywood is Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who once stood as an upstanding pillar of German democracy, truth, and justice. As Haywood’s investigation proceeds, he realizes that all strata of German society equally capitulated to Nazi ideology. And yet, despite this certainty Janning finds that passing judgment on any one individual is difficult in the extreme, due to the complexity of her actions.

Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), the wife of a Nazi general who was executed during the first trials, demonstrates this difficulty precisely. Bertholt remains an enigma throughout the film. Dispossessed from her aristocratic and Nazi past, Bertholt is trying to survive and find her place within a liberated Germany. At one point, she tells Judge Haywood that she wants to convince him that “We’re all not monsters,” yet her motivations are unclear. One cannot tell if she’s using the judge to receive absolution from atrocities that her Nazi husband might have perpetuated, or revealing the complexities at the heart of trying to work against an immoral regime from within it. The film never provides an answer.

Even after Judgment at Nuremberg self-righteously ends with the assertion that Germany as a whole should be indicted for its war crimes, since the ignorance of its people was “willful,” the image of Madame Bertholt haunts the final frames, problematizing this answer. After Judge Haywood pronounces the guilt of the four judges, he phones Bertholt. The shot cuts to a close-up of a painting of Bertholt’s husband, slowly zooming out, and panning over to Bertholt who is backlit from a window. She sits motionless near the ringing phone, a living shadow, and so we never know why Haywood calls. Does he mean to apologize to her? Did he realize her husband’s actions should not implicate her? Or is it a gesture of friendship? The commonality of their positions — a woman who wants to disaffiliate from her Nazi past and a man who believes in democracy yet often allows Gestapo-like tactics in his courtroom — cannot be missed. The film suggests that victor and vanquished are not all that different. The reason that these two cannot connect is because they don’t realize how close they are to each other already.

But such nuances are mostly ignored, for the most part the film blusteringly points out its subtleties in the speeches of Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), lead defense attorney. Late in the film, he argues that if Janning is found guilty for abetting the Nazis, others must also be held accountable for their collusion: the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Vatican for signing an accord with Nazi Germany, England for Churchill’s early praise of Hitler, and America for its industrialists who helped Hitler rebuild Germany’s armaments.

At its best, Judgment at Nuremberg poses difficult questions about individuals’ and countries’ involvements with despotic regimes, questions we still wrestle with today (see Shell Oil’s involvement in Nigeria). However, the film ultimately deflects attention away from international culpability, in two ways. First, the nobly tragic figure of Ernst Janning assigns blame to Germany alone, and second, the film’s inclusion of extremely powerful footage of the Holocaust cannot help but cast Germany in a “demonic” light.

To the film’s credit, it self-consciously points out its seemingly contradictory goals of trying to humanize the Germans and expose the horrors of the Holocaust. Hans Rolfe objects to the prosecution’s desire to show this footage in the courtroom, feeling that it conflates his defendants with the merciless executioners of the concentration camps. But his objection is overruled and viewers are left asking if the judges’ actions are any less morally odious than those of the executioners.

Ultimately, Judgment at Nuremberg reminds viewers that apathy does not absolve them of responsibility for their government’s actions. Those individuals who do nothing to prevent an unjust system from taking power indirectly sanction its authority. The three interviews with Mann, Schell, and Kramer’s wife, Karen Sharpe, included on this DVD indicate the film’s political intent, to make viewers aware of the social implications of their actions. According to Mann, the movie’s production emerged out of his own progressive impulses: “[I]f I helped to change the world just a molecule, then that would be something worth having.” Judgment at Nuremberg is definitely worth having.