Film Diary: Judgement at Nuremburg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Judgement at Nuremberg

Of all the genres of film, the courtroom drama is surely the most unrealistic and oxymoronic. A few years ago I sat in for research purposes on a criminal trial at Reading Crown Court. That trial dragged on for an unusually long seven weeks and, at least on the obvious and superficial level, it was as dull as ditchwater. For those with eyes to see it was full of drama, but it was psychological drama expressed in the twitch of the judge’s eyebrow as he repukes m’learned friend for overstepping the mark; a stifled yawn from a juror; the body language of co-defendants who clearly can’t stand each other. Not the stuff of a blockbuster film. Instead, courtroom films are a convention and little more.

Judgement at Nuremburg isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally choose to watch. Similarly, Spencer Tracy doesn’t figure much in these diaries for all his reputation as one of the screen greats, but then I’ve never cared much for the sort of film Tracy appeared in. Typically as a homely, small-town-American judge in a cosy, Norman Rockwell sort of way.

And that’s exactly what Tracy plays here. Except that this is no ordinary home-town-American courtroom, it’s the fag-end of the Nuremburg Trials in 1948 when the big names have long been dealt with, Germans are ready to move on, the Cold War is begininning to bite, and few besides the likes of the fanatical chief prosecutor Richard Widmark have much appetite for yet more trials of bit players in the Nazi movement.

And who is on trial here? Ostensibly it’s a quartet of judges who maintained the legal pretences of the Nazi regime. Three of them Party apparatchiks put in place to ensure that the German courts did the Party’s bidding. The fourth a distinguished and respected lawyer who, instead of leaving, hung in there in the hope of preventing the total desecration of the legal system. It must have been a difficult and brave decision to make, and an impossible one to maintain. As soon as he spoke out he would surely have been eliminated, and inevitably his determination to stay in place to maintain some kind of integrity meant that his own integrity was necessarily compromised as the system sucked him in. And therein lies the fate of many might-have-been greats. (I’m reminded of the related case of the physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of atomic theory, who instead of leaving Germany along with contemporaries like Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, remained working on the German atomic bomb. Some say that he deliberately held back the development, but of course (cough cough) this is uncertain.)

But it’s not that simple. As the spirited defender Maximillian Schell points out, the United States itself has at times advocated eugenics. US corporations profited from supplying the Wehrmacht. And one thing that remained unspoken struck me rather forcefully. There’s only one black face in the whole film and that belongs to a guard who appears fleetingly and says nothing. In 1961, the year of the Freedom Riders, his must have been a very brave film to make in the US.

Oh, and one can’t leave this film without a mention of the three delightful cameos: by Marlene Dietrich as the widow of an executed war criminal anxious to move on and rebuild; Judy Garland (looking pudgy and shopworn) as the alleged victim of Jewish miscegenation; and best of all, the terminally-ill Montgomery Clift as a none-too-bright victim of the forced sterilisation policy. And it’s nice to see a young Captain Kirk in action!

One quote leapt out at me. “One thing about Americans, we’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it and not very good at it.”

Quite!

I’m glad I took the plunge and watched it. It’s not an easy film , nor is it the self-righteous one I feared, and its reputation is deserved.

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One Response to “Film Diary: Judgement at Nuremburg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)”

  1. tvor Says:

    They’re still not very good at it. 😉
    I’ve never seen the film. I think i might like it so thanks for your review


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