Judgment at Nuremberg Review

Judgment at Nuremberg Review

After the end of World War II, the Allied forces held a series of trials in Nuremberg for war crimes. There were twelve in all, the first and best known taking place between November 1945 and October 1946 dealing with the major war criminals, including Hermann Göring (sentenced to death but committed suicide before he could be executed), Rudolf Hess (life imprisonment) and others. Judgment at Nuremberg is based on the third trial, that of German judiciary, between March and December 1947.

Abby Mann wrote Judgment at Nuremberg originally as a television play. He decided to base his play on the judges’ trial rather than the more famous first trial as he wanted to deal not with the architects of the Final Solution and the Holocaust, but those who facilitated it. They were people like us. Maybe they were convinced they were doing the right thing, their patriotic duty. Would we, if we were born in a different time and place, have done the same and contributed to enforced sterilisation of those considered defective, or indeed mass murder? Those are the questions this play and subsequent film wants us to ask ourselves.

Mann fictionalises the real-life story, moving the action to 1948. As in reality, there are three judges but the number of defendants was reduced from sixteen to four. Names were changed as the characters on screen are composites of the their real-life counterparts. So the lead judge is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), prosecuting counsel Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) and for the defence Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). Chief of the four defendants is Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and witnesses called included Rudolph Peterson (Montgomery Clift), who had been forcibly sterilised, and Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), who had slept with a Jewish man who was then arrested for “race defilement”. Both Clift and Garland were at difficult times in the personal lives and this contributed to their performances, Garland’s being seven years since her last one, with some weight gain which she kept for her role. Also appearing are Marlene Dietrich, as the widow of an executed German officer who befriends Haywood during the trial. William Shatner, half a decade before Star Trek, has an early big-screen role and is as I write this the only surviving member of the cast.

The television play was made for Playhouse 90 (from its running time) and was broadcast live on 16 April 1959. Schell played Rolfe on both television and film, and even wore the same costume, which had been held in storage for the two years since. It was Katharine Hepburn who brought the play to Stanley Kramer’s attention, and Kramer took on the film production, casting Spencer Tracy (who had worked with Kramer on his previous film, Inherit the Wind, and was of course Hepburn’s longtime partner) as the presiding judge. Mann rewrote and expanded his script: Dietrich’s character, for example, was newly created for the film. Her presence raised a protest from one of the real-life judges, who thought a friendship – with hints of romance – between the two characters was ridiculous. It’s uncertain as to whether her presence was Kramer or Mann’s idea, possibly as an attempt to lighten what is to be honest a long and serious film without a lot of light relief. Much of the film was shot on location, though the courtroom is a studio set back in the USA. Kramer had hoped to use the real courtroom, but that proved impossible as it was in use, so production designer Rudolph Sternad (Oscar-nominated along with set decorator George Milo) recreated it as exactly as possible.

There’s no doubt that Judgment at Nuremberg is a weighty film, at 179 minutes twice as long as the original play. Given that most of it takes place in a courtroom, Kramer and his cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (who would win an Oscar for a later Kramer black and white film, Ship of Fools, and was nominated for one here) make great efforts to avoid the film becoming static, with a lot of camera movement and staging scenes in deep focus. There’s also no doubting the quality of the acting either. The use of star names in the cast manages not to distract, though some reviews of the time disagreed.

Stanley Kramer is a producer-director out of fashion nowadays, with a reputation for large-scale films which take on big themes but with worthiness and dullness as the result. While some of his films, such as the epic-scale slapstick comedy It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, are indeed endurance tests (for me anyway), Judgment at Nuremberg remains compelling and that’s without considering that it deals with one of the defining issues (and atrocities) of the twentieth century. During the trial Lawson shows the court – and us – genuine footage filmed by American and British soldiers during the liberation of the concentration camps. This was not usual for a major-studio American film and you can only imagine the impact it would have had. This certainly proved controversial, with test audiences urging it to be removed. Moving the action to 1948 allows Mann and Kramer to bring in the beginning of the Cold War and pressure not to convict the defendants or at least not to sentence them to death, given that West Germany was then an ally of the United States.

Judgment at Nuremberg had its world premiere in Berlin on 14 December 1961, in London three days later and the USA two days after that. It wasn’t the only Kramer film to have difficulties with the Production Code Administration, still then in force in the USA if beginning to break down. The PCA enforced the reduction of references to sterilisation and the changing of Judy Garland’s character’s relationship from a sexual one to a “physical” one. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning two: Schell as Best Actor (beating Tracy in the same category) and Mann for his adapted screenplay. Clift and Garland were nominated for supporting acting Oscars, as was Kramer for his direction and the film itself for Best Picture, though that was won by West Side Story. Schell was billed fifth in the credits, making him the lowest-billed actor in history to win an Oscar for a leading role.


The BFI’s release of Judgment at Nuremberg comprises two discs, a Blu-ray and a NTSC-format DVD of extras, encoded for regions B and 2 respectively. The film was cut for an A certficate by the BBFC at the time of its release. It’s now uncut with a PG, but that certificate dates from 2004. How many children will be watching what is no doubt an old film (in black and white too) is a good question, but parents should be advised that it’s certainly at the top end of a PG, with those references to sex and sterilisation and the Holocaust footage shown in court. I suspect it might be 12 material were it to be resubmitted today. In any case, the release carries a 15 due to the short film Resistance. The other extras are documentaries exempted from certification as they would not receive higher than a PG, though These Are the Men and Berlin Air-Lift were both passed U on their original releases.

Judgment at Nuremberg was shot in black and white 35mm and is presented in a ratio of 1.66:1 (a little narrower than the usual ratio for non-Scope US major-studio productions, which was 1.85:1), a transfer supplied to the BFI by MGM. It looks fine, with the greyscale and contrast so vital to monochrome looking right. There’s some minor damage, such as speckles, in places, but nothing too distracting.

The film begins with dialogue in both German and English, establishing the multilingual court proceedings and the presence of interpreters. Then, during one of Rolfe’s speeches, the camera zooms in and we are in English and remain so, some background conversation apart, until the end of the film. This no doubt was a commercial consideration, given that this was intended for a wide, primarily American, audience, and foreign characters speaking in their own language (even with subtitles) was not usual in major-studio films then. While the great majority of viewers would have heard this film in mono in cinemas at the time, the soundtrack on this disc is actually stereo, presented either in LPCM 2.0 or DTS-HD MA 5.1. I listened to the former and sampled the latter. The surrounds are used for music but more frequently for off-screen dialogue, which cuts to the left/right and/or surround and back to the centre speaker when the film cuts back to the person concerned onscreen. There is some bass in the explosion which ends the opening credits and in parts of the rather sparing music score. Stereo soundtracks were certainly used for films presented in 70mm (which this wasn’t) and some 35mm presentations with four-track magnetic stereo soundtracks in prime venues, so that I assume is the provenance of this. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are available in English for this feature but not the extras except Resistance, of which more below.

The Blu-ray has two audio extras. The first is a newly-recorded commentary by Jim Hemphill. He makes his position clear from the start: for him, Kramer is a great director and this is one of the greatest films ever made. (He suggests a few others, so no doubting his enthusiasm.) With three hours to play with, he spends a lot of time giving an overview of Kramer’s career, which was at its highest point around the time this film was made. Just under a decade later, he would be a filmmaker of an older generation out of touch with a changed society and changed industry. Hemphill devotes some time to Kramer’s career during the anti-Communist blacklist era, and his use of blacklisted writers and his difficult position as a Hollywood liberal and progressive at that time. He does discuss the contributions of the cast and other crewmembers and the commentary is very informative.

The second audio extra is a recording of a Guardian interview with Maximilian Schell, held at the National Film Theatre in 1971. As usual with these recordings, film extracts which were shown at the event have been edited out. This is a career overview, though of course Judgment at Nuremberg is talked about. Schell also discusses his directing career, which had begun with First Love the previous year. The interviewer isn’t identified on the disc, in the recording or in the booklet with this release, so is something of a mystery. Some online sources say that it is Deac Rossell, but that isn’t so: Rossell is a man and this interviewer was a woman. If she can be identified, this review will be updated. The recording runs 86:21, after which it is replaced by the film soundtrack.

The remaining extras on the Blu-ray disc are the film’s trailer (2:59) and a self-navigating image gallery (6:10).

The extras on the second disc begin with three produced in 2004 for the special edition DVD, and it enables us to hear from people alive then but not now. One of them was not Stanley Kramer, who passed in 2001 at age eighty-seven, so first up is a tribute to him (14:26). Interviewed here are his widow Karen Sharpe Kramer, twenty-one years younger than him and still with us as I write this. She was his third and last wife and mother of two of his four children, and won a Golden Globe for her role in the 1954 film The High and the Mighty. He first became aware of her from her acting, which after the 1950s was mostly on TV. She met him while he was making Ship of Fools.

The other interviewee is Abby Mann (who died in 2008, aged eighty), and he features in the other two featurettes here. He’s solo in The Value of A Single Human Life (6:02) where he talks of the origins of the TV play and how it was then a feature film. Amongst his many other credits was the television series Kojak, which he created. The other extra is a conversation with him and Maximilian Schell (19:37), a warm and friendly chat, with inevitably more hindsight available to Schell than he would have had in his Guardian Interview thirty-three years earlier. Schell died in 2014, aged eighty-three.

The remaining extras are not directly associated with the feature, but linked to it thematically. Heredity in Man (13:34) was made, not for theatrical distribution, in 1937 and is utterly chilling. Presented by Dr Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous) it discusses eugenics, a hot topic of the day before the Nazis took it up, and compares families who distinguish themselves in different spheres, to a family of seventeen children many of whom are (his word) defective, living in an institution and (his words again) maybe better off if they had not been born.

Huxley contributed also to Man – One Family (16:30), a propaganda short directed by Ivor Montagu in 1946, which pours scorn on Nazi theories of racial purity and superiority maybe to be achieved via selective breeding.

These Are the Men (11:58) dates from 1943 and has a commentary co-written by Dylan Thomas. It’s edited from footage from Triumph of the Will and gives prominent Nazis voiceover translations which condemn them from the outset. This is however a case of literally putting words into their mouths as Hess is made to describe how he was imprisoned, which of course he wasn’t at the time. Berlin Air-Lift: The Story of a Great Achievement (10:40) is a documentary record of ensuring supplies reached the blockaded city, made in 1949.

The final extra is a short film, Resistance (13:08), a drama directed in 2008 by Liz Crow, set in an institution for “defectives”, who are rounded up and sent away to their deaths as part of the Nazis’ Aktion-T4 programme. It’s powerful and undeniably distressing. The film is in English and is presented with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles, audio description and in-vision signing in British Sign Language. The latter two options were made at the time of production, as the end credits state.

The BFI’s booklet runs to thirty-two pages plus the covers. Jennifer Frost’s essay stumbles in its opening paragraph by referring to Abby Mann’s “original screenplay”, and doesn’t take into account the previous television play. That said, it is a thorough run-through of the film’s inception, production and release. After a two-page account from William Shatner, Frost contributes a four-and-half-page biography of Kramer. Also in the booklet are full film credits, and notes and credits for the extras. Those for Heredity in Man are by actor and disability campaigner Adam Pearson and are much less dispassionate than usual, as you might expect. Those on Resistance are a short piece by the film’s director Liz Crow.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10

An account of then-recent history, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a compelling film tackling one of the defining issues of the twentieth century.


out of 10

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