The other night, we used On-Demand to watch the 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremberg. I cannot recommend it highly enough! It covers a part of 20th century history that is rarely discussed anymore – the war crime trials that took place in the years following World War II. The trials covered in the film, specifically, were held in 1948. The big names from Hitler’s regime, such as Albert Speer and Admiral Dönitz, had long since been tried and sentenced by then. The trials dramatized in the film are exclusively concerned with 4 defendants, all of them judges and jurists of the Third Reich.
The film is loaded with star power. Spencer Tracy plays the lead character of Judge Haywood, part of the tribunal overseeing the trial. The prosecutor is played by the late Richard Widmark. In fact, Widmark died on March 24th of this year. The very next day, Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay, also passed away. The defense attorney is played by Maximilian Schell, who was little-known to American audiences at the time but who nevertheless won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal. The supporting players include such luminaries as Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland, in one of her last screen roles. One of the defendants is played by none other than Werner Klemperer, better known as Col. Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. It takes a little getting used to, seeing him in a completely dramatic turn, though still playing a Nazi. One other actor who has a great deal of screen time is a very young William Shatner as Captain Byers. That’s him in the photo, swearing in Judy Garland as a witness. It is worth noting that his knack for romancing aliens was already firmly in place here – Spencer Tracy’s character talks to him about his romancing of the local German women. And, just as on Star Trek, he has attained the rank of Captain.
This movie is absolutely brimming with ideas. The case for the defense – oh yes, there is a case to be made there – is not given short shrift. Schell earns every ounce of his Oscar statuette with his brilliant reading of the intelligent and articulate defense attorney. In the end, though, there is too much damning evidence for anyone to ignore, most significantly in a stunning speech given by Burt Lancaster as defendant Ernst Janning. Janning is horridly guilty as charged; guilty of covering his eyes, ears, and conscience; guilty of sending innocent people to their deaths. Yet Janning is ultimately the tragic figure of the trial, a man strong enough to admit and describe what he has done yet somehow not strong enough to have stopped himself.
I think Judgment at Nuremberg is a great and important film, and that it has become increasingly important with the passing of the years. Some of the questions at stake for the judges’ consideration are frighteningly timely. At the same time, I think this is a chapter of history that is being steadily forgotten, to the detriment of us all.