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Film discussion: Judgment at Nuremberg (Part 1)

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Stanley Kramer’s 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg is a demanding (at 3hrs) but very rewarding piece of cinema, especially for the uncomfortable questions it raises about law, justice and morality.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Between November 1945 and October 1946, 24 of the key figures in the Nazi leadership faced trial before the International Military Tribunal. The trials were important not only in prosecuting the war crimes committed by the Nazis, but also in setting the foundations for prosecuting international war crimes in years to come.

Contrary to my expectations, Judgment at Nuremberg is not an account of those trials. Rather, it is about the later Judges’ Trials of 1948, which were held under US military law. While initially disappointed that the villains of Nazism weren’t the villains in this story, I soon found the choice of the judges’ trials a more fascinating story that took the film in completely unanticipated directions.


The movie is set in the post-war ruins of Nuremberg, once the site of massive Nazi rallies. The ruins are a character in themselves – not only are Germany’s buildings in ruins, but so too its soul. And one of the things this film is doing is sifting through those ruins to see if anything (dignity, innocence) remains.

Another important thread in this movie is the nature of law. The choice of the trial of judges – who are the ultimate umpires or protectors of Law – absolutely shifts the focus to a trial of Law as well. But more on this later.


Spencer Tracey plays Chief Judge Dan Haywood, a former US District Court judge styled in the mold of American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – the epitome of American legal virtue. The judge is the audience’s surrogate – like him, it’s all new to us and we are being asked to judge as well.

The judge presides over the prosecution of 4 judges in the Nazi regime, including Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Each faced a number of war crimes-related charges, including murder, and each entered a plea of not guilty. Richard Widmark plays the firebrand prosecutor, Colonel Lawson, while Maximilian Schell plays the sterling role of counsel for defence.

Now, as counsel for the defense points out “… it is not only Ernst Janning who is on trial here, it’s German people”. Enter the subplot.

The judge takes time out from the proceedings to explore Nuremberg – a refreshing break from the sometimes heavy proceedings. He meets Frau Berthold (Marlene Dietrich), widow of a German military official tried and executed at the first Nuremberg trials – they lived in the house occupied by the judge for the trials’ duration. Berthold and the judge develop a close, but all above board, bond in the movie. In many ways, she symbolises the goodness and beauty of Germany in the shadow of the war’s atrocities, or at least the attempt to revive it. One great and very poignant scene is where they are both walking home together and a chorus of Germanfolk are singing “Das Lied eines Jungen Soldaten auf der Wacht”, or “Lili Marleen” (an old German song made famous by Dietrich, who sang it to Allied troops in the war). As the two walk, Dietrich herself begins to sing.

This narrative provides relief from the gravity and dramatic tension of the courtroom, and also boasts some fitting samples of Beethoven, Wagner and a little oomp-pa-pa for good measure.

The trial continues to unfold, with the prosecution presenting two key witnesses. The first is the nervous Rudolf Peterson (played by the uber talented Montgomery Clift), who was forcibly “sanitised” (neutered) as part of the Nazi mental health policy. The second was Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), imprisoned for refusing to testify against a Jewish family friend for alleged rape. Both cases were handled by the judges on trial.

The cross-examinations are harrowing, as both witnesses pretty much go on trial again care of the defence. The main argument is that both witnesses were correctly and appropriately judged according to laws at the time. While there is a lot of detail here, it is edge-of-seat stuff and a bit of a head *&^# to be honest. The defence’s cross-examination is superb, uncomfortably convincing, but ultimately flawed.

Despite protestations from his counsel, Janning also gives testimony. His words are a chilling indictment not only of what happened, but all involved both inside an outside Germany, people and nations. The film winds up with the judges’ verdict and reasons for decision, and a touching farewell.


Judgment at Nuremberg is a thoroughly though-provoking and dramatic piece of legal drama, up there with the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird. It presents the complexity involved in questions of justice, responsibility and morality, while still very much retaining a dramatic edge.

The performances are brilliant, especially from Clift, Dietrich and Lancaster. I think the only major flaw lies with some of the photography, which seemed a little melodramatic in parts.

There is no doubt that it is a dense and lengthy movie, but it never really drops the ball and the reward is it makes you walk away with something to think about. It’s an experience.

Another great thing about the movie is that it is not a victor’s film. On first blush, the movie comes across as a bit of American self-aggrandisement. However, the emotivism of the US colonel-prosecutor, reminders that the US wanted to move on from the war crimes trials prove it otherwise. Also, the ever looming Cold War is excellently backgrounded in the film – the wheels of history are turning. The US is about to step into a whole new era where the same questions of justice, law and morality will prove just as vital – Vietnam was just around the corner.

So, five-star goodness from me. Judge for yourself.

My next post will pick up some of the threads that come up in the movie.