Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Abby Mann based on his original story
Roxlom Films Inc.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental


Hans Rolfe: My Country, right or wrong.

This multi-star production examines changing attitudes to Germany post-WWII.

The film is set in 1948 towards the end of the many Nazi war crimes trials.  The court now reaches the trial of a group of judges that applied Nazi race laws.  The head of the panel of Allied judges is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), a middle American district attorney, who, with the film’s audience will be educated in the legal system under Hitler.  The judges are defended by attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) and prosecuted by JAG Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark).  The most prominent of the German jurists on trial is Dr. Ernst Jannings (Burt Lancaster) a widely published and respected legal scholar.

Rolfe’s defense hinges on depicting his clients as patriots and as judges whose duty was to apply the law of the land.  But the prosecution shows that the judges succumbed political pressure to rule contrary to the established facts.  With Marlene Dietrich as the widow of an executed war criminal, Montgomery Clift as a man sterilized as a “mental defective”; and Judy Garland as a Gentile whose innocent friendship with an elderly Jew led to the man’s execution.

The film is three hours and six minutes long and probably would have been even more powerful with at least half an hour worth of cuts and a tighter screenplay.  That said, it kept my attention throughout and is always thought-provoking.  In the background of the trial lurks the Cold War, in which the U.S. needs the support of West Germany.  Gradually, we see suggestions that Nazi misconduct should be relegated to the history books.  The film comes down squarely on the side of holding individuals responsible for the consequences of their actions.  There’s quite a bit of speechifying but it is of a high standard and goes down fairly easily.

Maximilian Schell won the Oscar for Best Actor and Abby Man for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.  Judgement at Nuremberg was nominated in the categories of Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Clift); Best Supporting Actress (Garland); Best Director; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; Best Costume Design, Black-and-White; and Best Film Editing.


5 thoughts on “Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)

  1. I agree that it’s long, and could probably lose 20 minutes or so without losing much in terms the overall story. I understand why it was this long, though. There is that hint of the Cold War in the screenplay, and it was in full swing by the time this came out. And while this is a good decade and a half after World War II, I think the world was still coming to terms with the true enormity of the Holocaust. That length may at least in part have been to try to truly explore the horror of what happened, even in a sterile courtroom.

    Still, hell of a cast, no?

    • Yes, it’s a damn fine cast. And an excellent movie really. It just doesn’t speak as loudly to me on an emotional level as some other Holocaust films.

      • I agree. It’s a bit sterile. There are emotions here, of course, but they’re all sort of after the fact rather than visceral. It’s less intense in a lot of respects, and that’s an important difference.

  2. I have never watched this movie and that is probably an error on my side. As it is not on the List I will probabbly skip it this time round as well.
    A general problem of the early movies dealing with Nazi crimes is that they hardly scratch the surface. While I do not know if that is the case with this movie they usually leave me with a bad taste in my mouth for skirting the real issues. Nuit et Bruillard is an exception, but otherwise it seems that the filmmakers are afraid that the audience cannot cope with the enormity of it.

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