Judge Neal Solon is consumed with the irony of a "judge" passing judgment on a film about a judgment of judges.
Our review of Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) (Blu-ray), published February 3rd, 2015, is also available.
"Once in a generation…a motion picture explodes into greatness!"
It would be a stretch to call anything that Judgment at Nuremberg does "exploding." The movie moves at almost a snail's pace. Perhaps the people who wrote that tagline meant to comment on the fact that a movie on this topic came out of nowhere and was likely to spark heated conversation. Almost 45 years later, Judgment at Nuremberg still maintains that essential ability to raise uneasy questions and to make one think. Aiding in that pursuit, MGM has made it readily available on an inexpensive "special edition" DVD.
Facts of the Case
Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg is a fictionalized account of the third of the Nuremberg Trials held following World War II. During the trial in question, Nazi judges and legal officials, here represented by four Nazi judges, were put on trial for crimes that could be seen as just following the orders of their government. The four jurists here, Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster, The Leopard, The Crimson Pirate), Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer, best known as Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes), Werner Lampe (Torben Meyer, Sullivan's Travels), and Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt, The Devil at 4 O'clock), are put on trial before a panel of judges headed by an American, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). After an impassioned battle between prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark, Pickup on South Street) and defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell, Little Odessa), the defendants are found, predictably, guilty of their crimes.
Judgment at Nuremberg is certainly a star-studded affair. In addition to the stars and well-respected character actors already mentioned, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, and Montgomery Clift all appear as witnesses in this film, and William Shatner can be seen in one of his few pre-Star Trek film roles. Despite the star power, one is not often distracted by the film's performances. While this may sound almost negative, it is, in fact, a great compliment.
Certainly one gets caught up in the emotion of Hans Rolfe's passionate defenses of his clients and countrymen, and in the heartache of the stories of the witnesses whose lives were ruined by these judges. But looking back at this film almost a half century after the fact, there are so many actors in this film who are almost inexorably linked in the public consciousness with one character that it could easily derail the film. It is a testament to their performances that it does not. Judy Garland may forever be Dorothy Gale; Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink; and William Shatner, Captain Kirk; but here they are Irene Hoffman, Emil Hahn, and Captain Harrison Byers, and you never doubt it. Nor do you question the other performances, the other characters. Only Burt Lancaster makes you wince momentarily, when he comes into view made up to look a quarter century older than he was.
The performances do what they should. They give life to the script, but allow you to focus on it and on the characters rather than on the actors who are playing them. It seems almost a fundamental goal of "good acting," but as public standards and ideas are constantly in flux, it's good to know that these performances still measure up.
As far as the script itself, it is as much about ethics and morals as it is about the crimes that the Nazis perpetrated. The central questions are not whether what the Nazis did was right or wrong, but rather of moral relativism. They are questions that are perpetually raised by thinking people in times of conflict: Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Who decides what killing is okay and what killing isn't? Who decides when one is no longer patriotically supporting one's own government and is, instead, committing crimes against humanity? The cynical answer is, of course, "the victor." The real answer is more nuanced and more intangible than that.
Hitler's slaughter of innocent human beings was wrong. Most would agree that that is the case in absolute terms, and I'm convinced that had Hitler won World War II, his actions still would have been wrong. If, however, the United States had lost some of the wars it has fought, using some of the tactics it has employed, would its actions have been right? Are they right, or is our view of ourselves just relativistic morality at work? The question more directly raised by Judgment at Nuremberg is this: What responsibility do citizens bear for the past actions of their government and for their complicity, active or passive, in the morally bankrupt actions of a government that was, at the time, their legal authority?
Further complicating matters is the case of Dr. Ernst Janning, a renowned ethicist who kept his position on the bench despite being fully aware of the Nazis' moral failings. His defense is that by keeping his authority as a judge he was in a better position to temper the extremism of the Nazi party; if he had resigned, surely the Nazi party would have given his position to someone more amenable to their plans and without his scruples. What excuse is this, though, for Janning's swearing allegiance to the Nazi party? For his Nazi-appeasing judgments against innocent people?
These questions sit at the heart of Judgment at Nuremberg, yet for the viewer they remain unanswered. They are, perhaps, unanswerable. Judge Dan Haywood resolves them the best he can in deciding the fate of the four men on trial in his court. Through the careful consideration of testimony, arguments, facts, and stories, Haywood concludes that it is the responsibility of judges to be moral standard-bearers. They should not be reflexively responsive to political pressures, but instead should protect the rights of the people they serve—not just the politically given rights, but the absolute rights as well. As judges, the defendants sitting before him knew this, yet they failed to live up to their obligations.
MGM more than meets expectations with the disc it delivers here. Both the video and the audio are excellent. The picture is presented in its original black and white widescreen, and it is pretty. The film is nearly fifty years old, but the image is clear and sharp and free of distracting defects. The only obvious blemish is a lack of anamorphic enhancement, which seems to be MGM's standard for films that are "close enough" to full frame.
The audio is similarly above par. This film is wholly dialogue-driven, and the courtroom drama comes across loud and clear. The stresses of age can be heard every once in a while in the thinness of the louder sections of the sparse musical score, but in all, it's a stellar presentation. Perhaps as a selling point, MGM has opted to also provide a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix in addition to the original mono. The surrounds are put to little good use here, as this is primarily a quiet, courtroom drama. Most of the noticeable differences come in the form of directional dialogue.
The extras are by no means exhaustive, but they are interesting and relevant. First up is a twenty-minute video called In Conversation: Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell, which reunites the two actors to talk about the project. After they get past stroking each other's egos, the conversation is actually quite engaging. There is a lot of talk about the previous incarnations of Judgment at Nuremberg, as part of the TV series Playhouse 90 and as a Broadway production. as well as tidbits about the creation of the film.
The Value of a Single Human Being follows. Its six minutes begin with Abby Mann reading Judge Haywood's opinion for the case from the film, but it's primarily composed of writer Mann's reflections on what he imagines to be the motivations of people like the Nazi judges in the film. He also comments on what he considers the normalcy and the basic humanity of the judges. Mann believes that this sort of moral failing could easily happen to most, and he blames patriotism as its evil root.
The last mini-documentary is a 15-minute Tribute to Stanley Kramer. This is essentially a brief overview of Kramer's life and, to some extent, his filmography, with comments and discussion by Kramer's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, and writer Abby Mann. A lot of time is spent on how Kramer and his wife met and on his years in the business. One of the most interesting discussions is of how films of Holocaust victims from Dachau affected Kramer. He would ultimately include some of this footage in Judgment at Nuremberg, making it the first Hollywood film to include actual footage from concentration camps.
Also included are a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer. Both are more interesting than the extras of their type that are generally included on DVD releases. The photo gallery is smartly divided into subsections, with each theme getting between 11 and 60 photos. The categories included are "Costume Design," "Set Design," "On Location," "Stanley Kramer at Work," and "Premiere in Berlin." "Stanley Kramer at Work" may have been more aptly titled "Stanley Kramer and His Cast at Work," as Kramer does not begin to regularly appear in the photos until the second half of the sixty photos in this section, but most of the collections are an interesting study of their topic. The focus of the subsections is a great strength and gives them an appeal beyond that of a random collection of pictures.
The trailer is interesting historically. It is overwrought, and tries, again, to inject peoples' thoughts of the film with explosions and physical action, though there is little of this in the film itself. Sure, it's metaphoric, but the trailer is misleading. The trailer is also of interest because a majority of its running time is spent showing clips of the film's six top-billed actors. Tracy, Lancaster, Widmark, Dietrich, Schell, Garland, and Clift are all featured in specific sections of the trailer, which leaves one knowing that this is how the film was sold. It is likely that touting the film's star-studded cast was the easiest—or the only—way to get people in the door. It is, again, a bit misleading, as the stars are not the focus of this show; this is an ensemble drama at its core. Still, a trailer of this sort is understandable if only because not taking advantage of the big names in this film would almost have been negligent.
MGM's supplements and presentation are, for the most part, worthy of a film of this stature. There is certainly room for a lot more in the way of historical context for a film like this, and some of the extras are a little light, but almost everything on this disc has some merit. The one exception is an "extra" not yet discussed: a still photo of three MGM DVD cases billed as "More Great MGM Releases."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a long film. It clocks in at over three hours, and sitting down to watch it seems like a daunting task. Stanley Kramer's decisions to favor deliberate pacing, static scenes, and details like getting the witnesses to and from the witness stand all combine to make the film seem longer. In my opinion, this length is easily overshadowed and quickly forgotten as one gets wrapped up in the story. Still, its length is certainly a factor if one doesn't have three hours to spare.
The other, more serious accusation often leveled at this film is that its story is bleeding-heart, anti-American liberalism. This is a harder criticism to discuss—because, as is always the case, people will be able to see whatever bias they want to see in media. At the end of the film, defense attorney Hans Rolfe does compare the guilt of American industrialists who profited from Hitler's rebuilding of Germany in the 1930s to the guilt of the Nazi judges. While this may be overstatement, or even slightly biased, its intention does not seem to be to condemn America, but rather to force the viewer to step back and look at the bigger picture—to consider the implications of the judgment of the German people at large.
The film is far from apolitical, but most are aware of that before the start.
One of the greatest ironies of Judgment at Nuremberg is that the men who sit in judgment of four German citizens, whose crimes' basic source was bowing to political pressure, are under constant political pressure themselves to downplay the guilt of the Nazis on trial. It is the Cold War, and Germany is a geographical ally. To the US, making these men pay for their crimes is not as important as protecting a burgeoning relationship with Germany. To governments, morality is not important; preservation of the intangible "State" is.
Judgment at Nuremberg tells its tale masterfully. It is full of numerous memorable performances and one Oscar-winner; Maximilian Schell won the Best Actor Oscar over Spencer Tracy in 1961, supposedly the lowest-billed actor ever to do so. It raises questions that continue to make those who watch it think. It is a classic film that surely deserves its classic status. Don't pass up an opportunity to see it. At the price you can find it online, it's a steal.
All those associated with the film—Nazi judges excluded—are free to go. MGM is advised to reconsider its selective policies regarding anamorphic transfers, but is commended for providing such a solid disc so cheaply. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
• "In Conversation: Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell"
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