Sunday, November 27, 2011

#468. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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

There's something about a courtroom drama that brings me to the edge of my seat. I love everything about them: the questioning and cross-examinations; the emotional outbursts; the last-minute revelations that break the case wide open. 

Simply brilliant. 

There have been some classic courtroom dramas over the years, including Witness for the Prosecution, Paths of GloryInherit the WindThe 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, where former Nazi officials 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 can fear and self-preservation excuse the deaths of countless innocents? 

What I found so interesting about Judgment at Nuremberg is that it recounts a trial not of the leaders of Nazi Germany, but lower-level officials, none of whom had any 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, the accused are as guilty as anyone who pulled a trigger or worked the gas chamber. 

In his opening statement, Lawson admits the case before the court is an unusual one. 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 those they had sworn to uphold? Defense attorney Rolfe believes his clients were also victims, men who had no choice but to follow orders. Lawson, however, 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 would rule if I were the judge. By presenting both sides so convincingly, Judgment at Nuremberg had me perplexed. Yet my indecision didn’t prevent me from being fascinated by it all. Judgment at Nuremberg is one of the most engrossing 3+ hour films I ever sat through.


Evapal said...

I am currently studying for a Psychology degree and at the moment we are looking at the idea of Obedience and why ordinary people will carry out acts of inhumanity if asked to do so by authority figures.

So this review has come at a perfect time. Definitely going to seek this film out.

DVD Infatuation said...

Evapal: Thanks for the comment!

For that subject, this would certainly be the prefect movie to watch. Definitely check it out.

Glad I could suggest a good one for you, and thanks again!