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JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Nominated for eleven Academy Awards:
Best Director, Stanley Kramer
Best Actor, Spencer Tracy
Best Actor, Maximilian Schell (win)
Best Supporting Actor, Montgomery Clift
Best Supporting Actress, Judy Garland
Best Adapted Screenplay, Abby Mann (win)
Best Cinematography, Ernest Laszlo
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design
Perhaps one of the finest films to deal with the aftermaths of the war against Hitler, the film asks some pretty serious questions about accountability and where a persons moral obligations to do what is right truly stands. The film revolves around the trial of four German judges who are accused of carrying out the orders of the Nazi's and sending many innocent Jewish people to their deaths for bogus charges. But they where following the law set in Germany, so are these four men who willingly followed a corrupt law do anything wrong? Are they guilty of doing what was asked from them? Director Stanley Kramer directs this gripping drama and with him an all-star cast who all deliver what is undoubtedly one of their most commanding performances onscreen.
The film opens in 1948 Germany, where destruction can be seen everywhere thanks to the war. The people are slowly getting back on their feet, after the horrific revelation of what was going on in the concentration camps years earlier. Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), arrives from America to preside over the trial of four German judges and their complicity in the holocaust. The judges defense attorney is Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), a man who is shamed by what happened during the Third Reich but it still proud of Germany and proud of the men who built it up after the humiliation the country endured after the first World War. He defends the four men by saying that they did not create the laws they where serving, but merely carrying them and that it was their duty to do. But the prosecution, led by Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), makes it clear that the moral obligation of man is more powerful than national pride and embracing a madman's inane ideas about patriotism. But Rolfe argues that there was a widespread attitude that obedience was the only way to truly survive, and going against Hitler and his ideas would have been considered treason and therefore the judges would have likely been executed or put into the camps.
Judge Haywood begins to learn more about Germany, mostly from Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), whose home was taken from her when her husband was executed by American soldiers after he helped butcher American soldiers at Malmedy. Haywood now lives in her home during his stay in Germany and befriends her despite the circumstances. She explains to him that the German people are not the horrible, heartless people the world believes them to be. She claims that many where ignorant to what was going on in the concentration camps, and indicates that the Germans wish to put this nightmare behind them and move forward. Their relationship grows but there is always a barrier between them.
The real crack in the case for the prosecution actually comes from one of the accused judges. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), testifies that there was a reason that educated men and women followed Hitler, and that was because Germany was suffering severely and he was their savior. He had the solution and because of that, the people embraced him. Janning was responsible for sending innocent people to their deaths, knowing they where innocent but put on a show anyway as if justice actually mattered. But he claims that Germans where aware of what was happening to the Jews, maybe not to the fullest extent but they knew.
SPOILER FOR THE FINAL SCENE IN FILM When all is said and done, the judges are sentenced to life imprisonment. The final scene has Haywood visiting Janning in his jail cell, Janning requesting the visit. Janning once again claims that he knew that the innocent where being found guilty, but never knew it would come to mass murder. In the scenes most gripping scenes, Haywood replies that he lost his ignorance the first day he signed the execution order for someone he knew to be innocent. END OF SPOILER
The film heavily relies on dialogue, and Mann's script is filled with some of the most powerful dialogue one will ever hear in a film. And what makes the dialogue hit us with such a sharp impact is because of the actors and actresses performances, and this film has a taut ensemble with everyone giving it their all no matter how much screen time they have. Spencer Tracy does a superb job and has several wonderful scenes, such as when he is touring the ruins where Hitler once belted out speeches that lifted the German peoples spirits, and where the country began its spiral downward from grace. His relationship with Marlene Dietrich is very well played out, and there is this tension between them every time they are together because one is there to judge the country and its actions, and the other was once very proud to be a German during one of history's darkest times and finds it difficult to acknowledge what her homeland is responsible for.
Maximilian Schell gives a bravura performance in which he won an Oscar for, despite it being a supporting performance. He plays a man who recognizes what Germany did during the war, but believes that the people are not guilty for following the law. His best scene comes after a scene where Richard Widmark shows the court some harrowing footage from inside a concentration camp. He begins his statement very respectively by expressing grief and heartache for what happened, and he is being honest when he says it shames him for what happened. But then turns around and goes into a rage, saying the footage incriminates his clients because they were not directly responsible for the death and torture of what happened. It's a very eerie performance and Schell does an excellent job.
The supporting players are also in top form, and two of the films most famous performances come from Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland. Garland plays Irene Hoffman, a German woman who as a young girl befriended a Jewish man. The relationship wasn't out of the ordinary at all, the man was just kind to Irene and her family and nothing more. But the laws where that Germans where not allowed to have relationships with Jews, and the man was charged with having an indecent relationship with Irene, and was sentenced to death by Janning. In one of the films most devastating scene, Schell attempts to badger Garland into admitting she did have a relationship with the man, but Garland forcefully defends the memory of her long dead friend and lashes out emotionally. Clift is also as riveting as a survivor of sterilization, to whom one of the judges on trial passed sentence on. His seven minutes are just as memorable as Garland's. It was the law in Germany that anyone who was mentally challenged, or backwards, was forced to give themselves up to the hospital for sterilization. Schell once again tries to turn the tables on the man by bringing up the fact he was not very bright in school and was considered mentally handicapped, and therefore the judge was only following the law. Schell even tricks Clift into lashing out by saying his own mother, now deceased, was mentally challenged. Clift, emotional, whips out a picture of her and shows the court, literally begging them not to believe the lies Schell has dished out. Both Clift and Garland would become friends, but neither would live past 1970 since both where tragically addicted to alcohol and drugs. Clift, a wreck on the set, was helped tremendously by his co-stars (Tracy in particular), who saw the actor was having a difficult time remembering his lines. Clift, onscreen, appears to be shaken and unaware of his surroundings, and though it fits in perfectly with the character (creating an outstanding performance), it is still sad to see this once promising actor twitching and nervously handling himself. It would serve for the purpose of his performance, but sad to know he was in such a state in reality.
Director Stanley Kramer does a wonderful job at directing the bleak material, but makes it all an absorbing and unforgettable experience. He directs his actors well (and a note must also be made to Richard Widmark's performance), and handles the fragile material well. The film also marked the second of four collaborations with Tracy (the first, 1960's INHERIT THE WIND, the third 1963's IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, and the final, Tracy's final performance before his death, 1967's GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINER). Tracy, at this time experiencing some serious health difficulties, stated that he would not work with anyone else except for Kramer.
The film would be nominated for eleven Academy Awards, but only won two and losing out mainly to WEST SIDE STORY in all other categories. Schell would be nominated for his first of three Oscars, and Spencer his eight of nine nominations. Kramer would receive his second of three Best Director nominations, but would never win one. Clift, on his four and final nomination, and Garland, on her second, would also never win Oscars. But the film was a huge success at the box-office, pulling in more than $15 million dollars (which would be heading towards the $200 million mark by today's standards), and is still highly regarded among many as one of the best films to deal with this sort of subject. It is in my opinion, one of the finest film of many who where involved careers, and the directing, sharp acting and involving script makes this a must for film lovers, and those who take the subject matter seriously.
Also, watch for a supporting performance by William Shatner, who co-starred here before he became the captain of a certain space ship.
My Grade: A