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Movie Review: Judgment at Nuremberg

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written by NITA Blogger Judge Robert McGahey


The film I’m writing about this month is long, more than three hours. It is not brightly colored, being shot in black and white. It is not the least bit funny, as it focuses on the greatest horror of modern times, the Holocaust. The film is 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg and if you see no other movie that I’ve written about, please see this one. What it says about judges and lawyers and justice is profound and thought provoking.

It is 1948. World War II is over, and the victorious Allies are conducting trials of officials of Nazi Germany, prosecuting them for what have come to be called war crimes. The setting of Nuremberg is a fictional trial of four German judges, conducted by a panel of three American judges, headed by Judge Dan Haywood, played by Spencer Tracy. The military prosecutor is played by Richard Widmark, the defense lawyer by Maximilian Schell, and the primary defendant, Ernst Janning, by Bert Lancaster. Marlene Dietrich appears as the widow of a German general, and Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift are cast as victims of the German judges’ actions. The cast includes many other recognizable actors, including Martin Balsam (the jury foreman in 12 Angry Men), Werner Klemperer (later to be seen as Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes), and a young but easily recognizable William Shatner. This truly all-star cast is superbly directed by Stanley Kramer.

As a film, Nuremberg is nothing short of brilliant. The actors are at the top of their games. Schell would win a Best Actor Oscar, the lowest-billed actor ever to do so. Tracy delivers his final verdict in one stunning, memorable eleven-minute take; it’s the clip we frequently use to end our ethics presentations at NITA programs. The rest of the cast brings the horror of what happened in Nazi Germany to agonizing reality.

This movie can be hard to watch, including as it does actual footage of concentration camps. While in our time Holocaust information – and images – are more broadly disseminated, it is probable that in 1961, when the movie came out, many people who saw the movie had not seen such footage. Shocking as it is to us, what must it have been like for them, especially a mere sixteen years after the end of World War II?

The movie pulls no punches, bringing into play the compromising attitudes of some American officials that the defendants should be punished lightly or not at all, since the Cold War was in full bloom and there were many who believed that we needed a strong German government to resist the Soviet Union. From the (literal) opening shot, Kramer forcefully rejects this attitude; one cannot miss his clear message that evil can never be accepted or ignored. Neither can the viewer ignore Kramer’s suggestion that Americans should not be sure that we occupy the moral high ground on such issues.

There are other important themes explored here that lawyers and judges must contemplate: Why is an independent judiciary important? What is the role of a judge in enforcing national policy? How far can a lawyer go in defending his client? Are certain actions acceptable if perceived as protecting the national interest? Do the victors in a war have the right to punish their enemies by creating laws after the fact? How does an international tribunal – or international law itself – gain legitimacy? Can the people of an entire nation be morally culpable for the actions of its leaders? And perhaps most importantly, what should an individual do when confronted with immoral, criminal behavior by his or her government? Kramer answers this last question in the final jail cell scene between Judge Haywood and Ernst Janning. Watching Tracy and Lancaster here is watching masters of their craft at the height of their powers.

Judgment at Nuremberg is powerfully written, brilliantly acted, and superbly directed. Even after more than fifty years, its message is timely and important. It is a hard movie to watch, but one that every thinking person, let alone every lawyer and every judge, should see – and spend time thinking about afterwards. Please watch it and do that thinking.

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