It's been a while! I have been REALLY slowly working my way through a list I compiled a few years ago of the Top 100 films. Making some incremental progress with this one!
Judgment at Nuremberg is a great courtroom drama with very strong actors: Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift. It was also surprising to see a very young William Shatner playing a small role.
The film is a dramatic retelling of the Judges’ Trial in the aftermath of World War 2. Apparently there is also a television play that was produced several years prior, with Claude Rains playing the presiding judge instead of Spencer Tracy.
I was impressed by the great acting, the ethical dilemmas of the story and the cinematography. A courtroom is a difficult thing to make dynamic and exciting on films. This one uses a creative use of a melodramatic 360 degree rotating camera inside the courtroom itself. I imagine this was no easy feat in a time of giant bulky cameras. And the fact that the film crew in the room had to be reduced down to a small enough size to be able to walk with and behind the camera.
Here's an example of the 360 motion from the prosecution's opening statement. Notice the additional micro-movement of the camera around 0:57, apparently to get Shatner's head more centered between the lights in the frame? (Were film monitors even a thing yet in 1961? I wonder how they would have seen that it was slightly off).
Even though it was produced 16 years after the events at the end of the war, apparently the movie was the first to show graphic actual footage from concentration camps, which is a powerful part of the film.
My mom gave me a tip before watching: watch Burt Lancaster's character. It's really hard not to watch him really - his character is notable for remaining stoic and silent for much of the movie, which makes us focus on him even more, as he refuses to blend in to the background. He seems to slowly open up after hearing Judy Garland's character's testimony of a forbidden love affair with an older Jewish man. He opens up even more when the footage from the concentration camps is shown. The whole courtroom is shocked by the footage and can't help but watch, including Lancaster's character, who initially keep his head pointing straight ahead, then gradually becomes curious and noticeably turns toward the concentration camp footage projected onto the screen in the courtroom.
There's some good philosophical and moral dilemmas here. Some of the German judges, such as Lancaster's character, are clearly upstanding characters and even had doubts about the direction their country was headed in in the 1930s. Can blame be placed on judges? They are not the ones who created the unjust laws, and their job is to uphold the laws of their nation. If the nation passes unjust laws, how then can they best support their country? I'm reminded of the “just following orders” defence used in some of the other Nuremberg trials.
And after the concentration camp footage is shown, there is some air of indignation - all of the judges seem to condemn it and have no prior knowledge that anything like this was taking place. Some judges are skeptical of the scale, questioning if it was even possible to dispose of so many bodies. Some judges are indignant the footage was shown at all, saying it had nothing to do with the trial. In that sense trying to remove themselves also from the responsibility of the executioner. Are judges then sort of blameless middlemen between the passing of the law and the punishment?
Lancaster's character finally snaps and breaks his silence, and denounces his own actions and the actions of the other judges. And he insists convincingly that he had no knowledge that such horrific acts of the concentration camps were happening, and on such a large scale.
Spencer Tracy's character, the presiding judge, ultimately rules to imprison all the judges. Lancaster's character later insists on meeting him in his prison cell and insisting that he knew nothing about the concentration camps - to which Tracy responds that the injustice first began when the German judge sentenced the first single innocent person to death. That's where the line started to be crossed, much much earlier than the killing of millions.
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