Thursday, April 2, 2009

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg; drama, USA, 1961; D: Stanley Kramer, S: Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancester, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, William Shatner
Nuremberg after the end of World War II. Judge Haywood arrives in town in order to conduct the war crimes tribunal against the four former Nazi members: among them is the ex-judge Ernst Janning, who is represented by German lawyer Hans Rolfe. Colonel Lawson brings in numerous witnesses in order to show the brutality of the Nazi regime, among them Mr. Petersen, who was sterilized because of his low IQ, and Irene Hoffman, whose friend, a Jew, was murdered, while film footage from concentration camps is screened in the courtroom. In the end, Janning speaks up and admits his guilt. All fours men accused of crimes are sentenced to life in jail.

A thoroughbred masterpiece, an extremely charged experience from start to finish, "Judgement at Nuremberg" is one of the most thought provocative movies of the 60s, a message film that has a mouth full to say, but it's relevance even today shows that it's messages weren't preachy but absorbing. The extremely tight screenplay not only sets the courtroom drama as an indictment of the Nazi regime, but also as an indictment of the civilization: because, if the viewers read between the lines, they will find plenty of scary parallels of the four accused people in the tribunal and many things that were happening after World War II and are even happening today. Namely, even though the Nazi regime is long over, the movie debates how many of it's negative features, like nationalism, hate, propaganda and war, still continue to appear in numerous countries of our time. Maybe the small episode with Montgomery Clift, who plays Petersen, an obviously mentally handicapped person who was sterilized during the Third Reich, seems rather rough and could have been handled better, yet all other roles are perfectly set up, while the mentioned episode also courageously brings up a similar case in Virginia, where a Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Owens supported "a ban on reproduction of imbeciles".

Maximilian Schell plays lawyer Hans Rolfe extraordinary and absolutely, especially in such scenes where he accuses the "American industrialists earning a fortune when they sold their weapons to Hitler" or when he tries to defend Janning with dignity, not realizing that 'whataboutism' never makes a crime disappear. Director Stanley Kramer sharply observes how the truth can be shaped and bent - for instance, in the jail, the three former Nazi members read the newspaper headline of the increasing antagonism between the US and the Soviet Union and immediately interpret it their way, about how they were right because it "shows how the West will have to battle the East" - while the film is also trying to juggle with humane touch, and succeeds, but also with the 'political football' played behind the trial, where some army officials try to persuade the judge Haywood (wonderful Spencer Tracy) to give a mild sentence in order not to upset the German people. A few heavy handed moments and some unnecessary subplots are bothersome, while some critics lamented how "Judgement" is more a message film than a real film, yet its power is still palpable today and has some of the most groundbreaking speeches ever put on the big screen. One of them comes when the ex-judge Janning tells judge Haywood in remorse:"Those people, those millions of people...I never knew it would come to that. You *must* believe it, *You must* believe it!", while he replies with this line: "Herr Janning, it "came to that" the first time you sentenced a man to death you *knew* to be innocent."


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