Directed By: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark
Tag line: "The event the world will never forget"
Trivia: Laurence Olivier was originally cast as Ernst Janning
Whenever a movie shifts its action into a courtroom, I immediately move to the edge of my seat. I love everything about courtroom dramas: the intense questioning and cross-examinations, the emotional outbursts, the last-minute revelations that break the case wide open. Simply brilliant. There have been some classic ones over the years, like Inherit the Wind, Witness for the Prosecution, Paths of Glory, The Verdict and To Kill a Mockingbird, just to name a few. None, however, had quite as powerful a subject matter as Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, a fictionalized account of the 1948 Nuremberg trials, during which former Nazi officials, many directly responsible for the Genocide carried out under their regime, stood accused of crimes against humanity.
Judgment at Nuremberg centers on the trial of four German judges, the most notable of whom is renowned author and scholar Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). All four have been charged with sentencing innocent men, women and children to the death camps. American judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) presides, with U.S. Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) acting as prosecutor. Defense lawyer Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell) argues that the accused were merely enforcing the laws established by a totalitarian regime, and that failure to do so would have surely cost them their lives. But does fear and self-preservation excuse the deaths of countless innocents?
What makes Judgment at Nuremberg so interesting is that it’s a trial not of the leaders of Nazi Germany, but lower-level officials, all of whom had no direct influence on Nazi policy. Yet as far as Col. Lawson, who was personally present at the liberation of the Dachau Concentration camp, is concerned, these four are as guilty as any who may have actually pulled the trigger or worked the gas chamber. In his opening statement, Lawson admits the case before the court is an unusual one. After all, at the time these judges made their rulings, they were adhering to the laws laid down by Hitler’s Nazi party. The basic question Lawson presents is; did these four have a higher obligation to the laws of humanity, even if they contradicted ones they'd sworn to uphold? Defense attorney Rolfe believes his clients were also victims, men who had no choice but to follow orders, while Lawson contends they did have a choice, not to mention an obligation, to enforce natural justice, a justice he believes they callously ignored.
By the end of most courtroom dramas, I pretty much know how I'd rule if I were judge or jury. In presenting both sides so convincingly, Judgment at Nuremberg had me perplexed. Yet this confusion didn’t prevent my being fascinated with the story at hand. Judgment at Nuremberg is one of the most engrossing 3+ hour film I've ever sat through.