The details of the military campaigns of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust have been recounted in countless films. Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg is a rare cinematic exploration of the messy, difficult aftermath of evaluating culpability, not only for the Nazi masterminds, but also for innumerable officials and functionaries whose complicity made the Holocaust possible.
Downbeat, intelligent, and compelling, the film is brilliantly constructed and acted, bringing lucid, forceful moral argumentation as well as emotional sympathy to both sides without tipping its hand until the powerful climax. Tribunal justice Dan Hayward (Spencer Tracy) is the ideal foil for the film’s rhetoric: a self-deprecating, folksy American circuit court judge with no ax to grind and a winsome appreciation for his own obscurity, knowing he’s sitting in judgment of defendants no one else wanted to judge.
The attorneys are perfectly matched: fiery Richard Widmark as the somewhat overzealous prosecuting attorney, arguing that those who collaborated in Nazi atrocities must be held accountable; fiercely controlled Maximilian Schell for the defense, arguing that the accused are no more guilty than other Germans and even implicating Americans like Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Added to the mix is Burt Lancaster as a dignified German judge on trial for crimes against humanity and Marlene Dietrich as a German widow determined to persuade Hayward that Germany is not a nation of monsters, and that most who cooperated with the Nazi effort had no idea about the death camps and believed they were doing the right thing. The film’s moral nuance is formidable — which only makes the moral conviction of the climax more stunning.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.