Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 28 June 2019 05:38
(A review of
A three-hour black and white courtroom drama about the Nazi trials populated by movie stars in the waning days of their careers – sounds like the recipe for a snooze fest, an overly pious piece of do-gooder cinema that’s overly saccharine. Judgment at Nuremberg is not that movie. I mean, in a way it is since Judgment at Nuremberg is a star-studded piece of social critique that’s black and white and runs for three hours, but it’s more complicated than that.
Perhaps Judgment at Nuremberg’s quick glance as a piece of white elephant cinema is quite simply unfair. Much of this might have to do with director Stanley Kramer’s complicated legacy as one of Hollywood’s original open hearted (white) liberals. His films were heavy on the message and the sentiment, often at times overly simplistic about complex social issues, but clearly intended to mean well.
But this digestible view of his career seems to forget that he was a producer of works such as Champion, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and High Noon. When he got all the right ingredients together, Kramer could make some classic cinema. It is here that Judgment at Nuremberg resides – it is a masterpiece of the courtroom drama and the social issue film.
The best thing about Judgment at Nuremberg is how it presents a Germany identity at war with itself. There are no simplistic heroes and villains here, and the rise of Nazism is removed from the cartoonish, pulpy villainy of so many Hollywood films and distinctly given recognizably human faces. These thorny and complex ideologies give the film a distinct bite. It’s easier to hate someone and their actions from afar, but how easy is to hate someone and their deeds up close? How culpable was the average German citizen? How effective is a “good German” defense by someone with some social power?
These are the open psychological scars that Germany is grappling with when Spencer Tracy’s judge enters the bombed out remains of Nuremberg. Tracy is here to oversee a tribunal hearing the case against four German judges, including Burt Lancaster’s conflicted Ernst Janning. Into this already simmering cauldron of trauma and guilt wander a variety of stars in supporting roles, such as Richard Widmark as the prosecuting attorney, that blur the lines between victim and victimizer. Nationalism proved Germany’s downfall, but the ‘how’ and ‘why’ it got there is where Judgment at Nuremberg offers some insight.
While the staging and camera work is a bit static, as is typically the case with courtroom dramas, the acting never falters. This is a group operating with decades of experience and know when to push and when to hold back. Tracy anchors everything with gravitas, Lancaster complicates our sympathies, and Maximilian Schell is a mercurial defense attorney. Tracy and Schell both deservedly got Oscar nominations, and Schell walked away with win for a flashy but layered performance that’s never anything less than riveting.
Even better are a trio of supporting players: Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, and Marlene Dietrich. Clift plays a victim of forced sterilization, and his performance feels so authentic and real that it becomes squeamish to watch him rage and reveal the deep scars within. Garland is a gentile woman accused of having an affair with a Jewish man, and she’s broken and vulnerable in a way that lays bare an interior neurosis that often threatened to combust her flimsiest musical parts. In the twilight of their careers, both Clift and Garland would die before the decade was done, these two reminded the world what their vast talents were capable of in riveting, raw performances.
While Dietrich gets a role that finds her swimming in and out of the film as the conflicted, wounded soul of Germany itself, a woman trying to reconcile with the atrocities as much as she’s struggling with the new world of a liberated Germany. Clift and Garland deservedly got Oscar nominations, but there was no love for Dietrich. What a shame as her performance here is a minimalist wonder, and a definition of the word “luminous.”
As the film winds towards its harrowing end, one that does not absolve anyone from guilt and eschews easy political favoritism, such as a subplot about the encroaching Cold War and pressures to emphasize reunification over justice, Judgment at Nuremberg remains as haunting as Dietrich wandering down the streets with Tracy by her side. Jingoistic fervor and political apathy are the real enemies here, and they remain something worth fighting against. There’s no easy answers to prickly questions, and this film is an engrossing, harrowing fictionalization that thrills as much as it disturbs.