Sunday, February 17, 2013
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG
(December 1961, U.S.)
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG...the title says it all; the history, the drama and the justice of bringing Nazi Germany war criminals to trial. It's a courtroom drama like no other because we're already familiar with it's historical importance and legacy and we know we won't exactly be on the edge of our seats wondering if the verdict will come in guilty or not guilty. Instead, we'll get a filmmaker's vision and version of what and how it happened day upon day and the lives it affected in not only the American judges who would administer justice, but in the lives of Germans who were left to deal with and live amongst the post-war conditions in the city of Nuremberg and the horrible shame they had to endure with their country's stigmatic legacy. One of the more repeated pieces of dialogue you'll hear in this film that quickly grabs your attention is that despite the horrifying murders of over six million Jews throughout Europe at the hands of Nazi Germany, just about every German citizen claimed complete ignorance of what was actually going on. True? False? We may never know.
Stanley Kramer's film depicts the trial of specific judges who served before and through the Nazi regime in Germany, and who either passively, actively or in a combination of both, embraced and enforced laws, which led to the judicial acts of sexual sterilization, imprisonment or execution of men and women for their religions, their racial and ethnic identities, for their political beliefs or even for the state of their physical handicaps or disabilities. The incidents and events which form the foundation of the film's plot are largely concerned with the domestic situation in Germany prior to World War II. A key thread in the film's plot involves a "race defilement" trial known as the "Feldenstein case". In this fictionalized case, based on the real life Katzenberger Trial, an elderly Jewish man was tried for a relationship with an "Aryan" (German) woman that became legally defined as a "crime" under the Nuremberg Laws, and put to death in 1935. Using this, and other examples, the film explores and wrestles with issues of personal conscience, responsibility in the face of unjust laws and personal behavior in the face of widespread societal immorality. The film is also notable for being one of the first few motion pictures that actuall does NOT shy away from showing actual footage filmed by American and British soldiers after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Shown in court by prosecuting attorney Colonel Tad Lawson (played Richard Widmark), the footage of huge piles of naked corpses laid out in rows and bulldozed into large pits was exceptionally gruesome for such a mainstream film of its day.
I think even with my brief, but detailed, paragraph above, you can get more than a good sense of what JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG offers as historical drama. That being said, let's start to focus on the film in terms of players and performance. This is an all-star cast of the some of the greatest talents of the time, including Spencer Tracy as Chief Judge Dan Haywood, Burt Lancaster as Dr. Ernst Janning, the above-mentioned Richard Widmark and an absolutely electrifying performance by Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe, the defense attorney who examines the questions of individual complicity in crimes committed by the state. For example, he raises such controversial issues as the support of U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. for eugenics practices, the Hitler-Vatican Reichskonkordat in 1933, the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 that allowed Hitler to start World War II and Winston Churchill's own praise for Adolf Hitler. History dictates that there is some truth to these matters, but nonetheless, does not exonerate the part such men as these on trial played in the systematic execution of millions. One must take a moment to appreciate the role that Schell is taking on in that he must somehow, someway bring about a certain degree of humanity and innocence to these men for their actions during the time of Hitler's dictatorship. Because we know that none of his desperate legal efforts will work in the end, it simply makes Schell's performance with such a challenging role all the more important and significant. And let me also just say with regards to Judy Garland as Irene Hoffman...well, you all know that I don't care for musicals, so when it comes to the Yellow Brick Road, the meeting in St. Louis and the Easter Parade, Judy Garland can (respectfully) kiss my ass! However, I absolutely must give her credit her delivering a dark and emotional performance as a witness who fears her forced testimony may turn the case against the judges in favor of the prosecution. I would also point out that this was William Shatner's (STAR TREK) film debut.
As mentioned earlier, one of the ongoing and repeated claims in this film is "we didn't know" by too many of the German people, almost to the point where you shake your head at such pathetic ignorance and stupidity. Even by the end of the film, the accused Dr. Janning himself concedes to Judge Dan Haywood that his ruling was the right and just decision, but also claims that he, and all of the other judges on trial, had no idea that the outcome of their initial behavior would be so horrific. Spencer Tracy sums it all up simply and perfectly by replying, "You knew you were doing wrong the first time you condemned an innocent man."
Favorite line or dialogue:
Judge Dan Haywood: "Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and death of millions by the government of which he was a part. Janning's record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial. If he and the other defendants were all depraved perverts, if the leaders of the Third Reich were sadistic monsters and maniacs, these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake or other natural catastrophes. But this trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis, men, even able and extraordinary men, can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination. No one who has sat through this trial can ever forget. The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs...the murder of children...how easily that can happen! There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the protection of the country. Of survival. The answer to that is...survival as what? A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what WE stand for...justice, truth...and the value of a single human being!"