Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Movie Review - Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)


First, a little history. The Nuremberg trials were a series of trials conducted by a U.S military tribunal set up to bring war criminals to book, and were held in Nuremberg, Germany, soon after world war 2. This movie deals with one of them - the 1948 Judge's Trial - conducted to prosecute former members of the German justice system, like jurors and ministers, for aiding the Nazis in crimes like racial purification. These crimes were not straightforward but complex. The accused themselves did not kill anyone. But they supported a system that did, for the greater good of the country. Hence, their prosecution was debatable.

Why the movie is good

The movie cleverly mixes a lot of emotional layers, playing different people and relationships against each other in dramatic form, with a good script and terrific character development.

Spencer Tracy plays Chief Justice Dan Haywood, a man shown as having both an open mind as well as a curiosity about German views of Nazism. He comes into the trial unsure of how some of the accused - educated men - could he held responsible for the deaths of millions.

His transformation is wonderful to watch. His view of the trial towards the start of the film is firmly that of how the prosecution has simply got to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty. Because the movie's main issue towards the start of the film is one of complexity. Should just men be accused of following an unjust law, in the interest of their country? Towards the end of the film however, Haywood determines that justice and the value of a single human life takes precedence over political and social context, and that the onus is now to try and disprove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty.

Maximilian Schell plays defense lawyer Hans Rolfe, a man who's agenda is to uphold the dignity of the German people, to win his case by the American's own rules, and to defend the accused by logic and to the best of his ability, playing the devil's advocate if necessary. You find yourself agreeing to a lot of his points.

Despite his confidence, his is an uphill struggle. He's defending a man who doesn't want to be defended, using arguements that can win minds but not hearts. He knows that some of his methods are wrong, but his justification, that he is doing it in the best interest of Germany, is what ends up hurting his case, as parallels are drawn between his behaviour and that of Nazi sympathisers.

Richard Widmark plays chief prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson, a man hell bent on seeing every last Nazi and their supporters dead or in jail. I wish the movie discussed his motivation for doing so, but it only hints at it.

Not to be missed is his dinner discussion about Americans as occupiers. The fact that they're not used to it; their awe at another country's history and culture leaving them with an inferiority complex, forcing them into giving the Nazis the benefit of the doubt, are all debatable but interesting points of view.

Burt Lancaster plays Ernst Janning, one of the accused. Mostly silent, he comes into his own in a stunning monologue in a statement to the court towards the end of the movie, explaining why good men supported a Nazi government, and why they were wrong to do so.

Marlene Dietrich plays Mrs Bertholt, a widow to an executed German General, cynical of the prosecution, convinced that the tribunal sanctions political murder, and that the only way to look is forward. She believes in reconciliation and tries to make Haywood believe that Germans are not monsters. He tries to understand how no one in Germany noticed the murder of millions, and is disturbed by her pleas.

This is an immensely balanced movie in terms of points of view.

Other people to watch out for are William Shatner in a small recurring role as Haywood's aide, and Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift as witnesses. Particularly Clift.

DVD extras

Interesting points to note:

- Maximilian Schell talks about a European jealousy of European actors who achieve success in the U.S.

- Writer Abby Mann remembers resistance to the film and disapproval for criticising Germany in the 60's due to the prevailing cold war situation and the U.S needing Germany as an ally, a sentiment that appears in the film itself.

- Mann also talks about the main villain of Nuremberg being patriotism and draws a parallel to McCarthyism.

- Director Stanley Kramer's wife talks about her husband visiting U.S colleges to talk about the issues behind the film and finding students sceptical that the Holocaust actually took place because the large number of victims seemed unrealistic, a sentiment that is echoed by one of the accused characters in the film, who is then quickly corrected.

Have you seen this film? Do you have any interesting thoughts about it?



Lazy Pineapple said...

I would love to see this movie...I always wanted to know more about the Nuremberg trials.
Thanks a lot for this review.

Daniel D'Mello said...

Sure, thanks. Some of these older movies had great scripts.

Lazy Pineapple said...

hey...I saw this movie after I read your post....simply superb...Loved the dialogues...the shame of the German people and their own defence was depicted so well...

Daniel D'Mello said...

Excellent dialogue. The movie covers all possible points of view doesn't it?

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