Judgment at Nuremberg
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Judgment at Nuremberg

On extremely rare occasions a director gathers together a dream team. Joined by a talented cast and after obtaining the serices of an exceptional writer to provide a compelling script and a legendary film comes into existence. ‘Judgement at Nuremberg admittedly contains some flaws, but it clearly retains its status as the epitome of the court room drama. After World War II a series of military trials were convened in the recently liberated city of Nuremberg. By 1948 the trails were concluding with many the high profile, upper echelon Nazi war criminals sentenced to either life imprisonment or execution. The remaining defendants were those in positions of authority such as judges that upheld the mandates of the regime. The question that demanded an answer was whether these men were responsible for what happened to those poor souls they sentenced. Were they just middle management carrying out the decisions of those above them or did they hold some degree of culpability for what occurred? The film follows the fictional trial of several judges that served on the bench during the Nazi’s reign of terror. Among the defendants is Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), world renowned jurist, author of definitive books on justice and accused of heinous acts. Defending him is the court appointed attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), for the prosecution Rolfe must face Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), a man that feels it is his responsibility to bring these people to the justice they deserve. Deciding the cases are a tribunal of judges headed by Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracey), a man at the end of a long career, recently defeated for his seat on the bench back in America. With actors such as this on the screen what follows is a taut drama that explores the darkest acts ever committed by humanity.

Although the film received critism for its length, it runs over three hours; such scope is needed to explore the issues that raised in an extensive fashion. It is also is a platform for some of the most memorable performances ever set to film. There is a side plot were Haywood becomes emotionally attached to a widow, Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich) that could have used a few more passes in the editing room but even those scenes demonstrated the human fragilities of all the parties involved in this search for truth and revenge. At the heart of the matter is how far down the chain of command does responsibility extend? Are the rank and file carrying out the orders hold the same degree of responsibility as those that issued the orders, should a man refuse to obey an order he knows is amoral even at the cost of his life? Just look at the current news, such questions still exist and need answers. The film also shows that there is life outside the court room. The people of Germany were often victims of the Nazi party, and life has to be rebuilt for them as well, while most of the focus was deservedly afford the victims of the death camps, the regular citizens of this nation caught in the middle of this struggle between nations.

This film provided a platform for some of the best actors ever to grace the silver screen. Spencer Tracey was in the zone as a jurist after just delivering a stellar performance in Inherit the Wind. Here is an actor the audiences were familiar with, one they could relate to on an emotional level. Here he fully fleshes out his presentation of Haywood as a man that has lived by and for the law now at the end of his career and faced with the most difficult decision he has ever had to face. Maximilian Schell garnered the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance here. He gives incredible depth to Rolfe as a man charged with defending people that like him made a living with the law. Schell allows us to see the conflict in this man, how he has to believe in the innocence of his clients. One of many intense scenes revolves around the portrayal of a feeble minded man by Montgomery Clift. Easily distracted by the cross examination Clift gives us a glimpse at the collateral damage down to German citizens, being branded as feeble minded in effect negated all civil rights for this man. You will without doubt recognize the aide assigned to Haywood, a very young William Shatner. Even his performance is well crafted and on target. Burt Lancaster does seem a little out of place here, but his well-honed talent delivers as the man that must maintain his dignity as those around him charge him with horrible crimes.

Stanley Kramer is often overlooked when cinema buffs are discussing the pantheon of great directors, but he has earned his place among the best purveyors of his craft. With films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind, Ship of Fools and Mad, Mad, Mad World to his credit he has repeatedly proven that he can handle the most difficult subjects taken in my films. Kramer has a keen sense of composition which is evident in every frame of this movie. The details in the background, the use of close-ups to show the reactions of those listening to the many speeches, all add up to a well-crafted and executed experience. At the beginning of the film, Kramer employs a unique technique to pull in the audience fully capturing their attention. The German characters all speak German, English speaking members of the court listening through headsets. In mid speech, Schell switches from German to English, nice since it means we won’t have three hours of reading subtitles.

The presentation of the DVD by MGM/UA is a bit on the mixed side. The video is presented in 1.66:1 and is typically clear and free of any major defects. There were a few specks every so often but nothing too detracting. The Dolby two channel audio was a bit of the weak side, but the dialogue came across clearly, what was lost was a sense of depth to the scenes. The extras were intriguing though. There is a twenty minute In Conversation with Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell which is the two men sitting face to face discussing the issues of the film. The Value of a Single Human Being details the script by Abby Mann and finally a 14 minute tribute to the career of Stanly Kramer. This film deserves a place in any serious film collection.

Posted 12/28/04                05/20/2017

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