Producer-director Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), considered by many to be the legendary filmmaker’s masterpiece, is a grave, near-documentary attempt to deal with the Holocaust, war crimes, the complex moral-political impact of the Nuremberg Trials, and the very nature of justice, itself. With a thoughtful, intelligent screenplay by Abby Mann (based on his own award-winning Playhouse 90 television play), the film features wrenching performances by Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland.
Back in 1961, few movies directly addressed the Holocaust, and fewer still did so in a blunt, graphic manner, laying bare the Nazi atrocities and painting devastating portraits of a few of the regime’s shattered victims. Tackling such a touchy subject and depicting it with both truth and grace was no easy task, yet producer-director Stanley Kramer, known for such socially conscious message films as 'The Defiant Ones,' 'On the Beach,' and 'Inherit the Wind,' felt compelled to open America’s eyes to the reality of German life during World War II by showing how power was abused and laws were twisted to fit the twisted tenets of Adolf Hitler’s ideology. As his platform, Kramer chose the Nuremberg tribunals, a series of infamous war crimes trials conducted by the Allies in the years immediately following the war’s conclusion. Many notorious Nazi figures were convicted and executed, but instead of focusing on those cut-and-dried cases, Kramer chose to adapt screenwriter Abby Mann’s ‘Playhouse 90’ television drama about the less incendiary but more complex and ambiguous trial of a quartet of Nazi judges whose only crime was resolutely following the letter of Nazi law by sentencing minor defendants to such horrific fates as torture, sterilization, and death.
‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ chronicles this protracted hearing in riveting fashion, and if it wasn’t for another socially conscious film that became an Oscar juggernaut, ‘West Side Story,’ Kramer’s movie just might have won Best Picture. It certainly deserved to. Distinguished by Mann’s powerful, balanced screenplay and an all-star cast that includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift, this intensely absorbing drama grips us from the opening frames and provides intimate access to the judges, lawyers, defendants, and witnesses who populate the claustrophobic courtroom. And by presenting both sides of the case, the film also sparks a stimulating dialogue about the innocence or guilt of those on trial, men who simply did as they were told and followed the mandates of their profession. (Or did they?) With searing acuity, ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ examines human integrity and courage in the face of evil, the proliferation of subversive ideas, power of propaganda, and how quickly an agenda of prejudice, hate, and vengeance can infect, shape, and define a nation. And most importantly, it asks us to decide if and when it’s appropriate to abandon the laws of our country and risk incarceration in order to do what our conscience says is right and humane.
In his opening statement, prosecuting attorney Col. Tad Lawson (Widmark) proclaims the case unusual “because the defendants are charged with crimes committed in the name of the law,” yet these German judges - among them, the stoic, aloof Dr. Ernst Janning (Lancaster), who believes himself to be superior to his smugly ignorant cohorts - “distorted, perverted, and destroyed justice and law in Germany.” Unable to claim they were brainwashed by Nazism at an early age, the judges, according to Lawson, “embraced the ideologies of the Third Reich as educated adults, when they, most of all, should have valued justice.” Defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Schell) believes not just the judges, but the German people are on trial, and counters Lawson’s remarks by citing the impossible position in which the judges found themselves - carry out the laws or become traitors. “My country right or wrong,” Rolfe says, quoting a famous American phrase, “is no less true for a German patriot.”
Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), a thoughtful, compassionate, yet firm and resolute jurist, leads the panel of three American judges presiding over the tribunal, and in an effort to gain some perspective on the attitudes of regular Germans about the atrocities that for years transpired under their noses, he ventures out into the community. He also befriends Mrs. Bertolt (Dietrich), the bitter widow of an executed Nazi officer, who tries to convince him the German people should not be convicted en masse of guilt by association. “We are not all monsters,” she tells him.
Such a statement is all too true, and the film does a fine job depicting the warmth and joviality of everyday Germans striving to put the shame of the past behind them. The prosecution, however, focuses unrelentingly on the small cadre of monsters who annihilated millions under the watchful and approving eye of the Third Reich, and in arguably the movie’s most stirring sequence, Col. Lawson projects a five-minute montage of concentration camp footage, showing emaciated workers, nude children, skeletal remains in a furnace, shrunken heads, fields of dead bodies piled high like garbage, and a bulldozer pushing hundreds of naked corpses into a ditch. For many 1961 viewers, this was their first glimpse of what actually transpired in these ghastly prisons where human life was shamefully disregarded and where the judges on trial mercilessly and needlessly sent so many victims. The shock value of these horrifying, incomprehensible images hasn’t diminished one iota over the ensuing decades, and it’s doubtful it ever will.
The crux of the trial hinges on the testimony of two key prosecution witnesses, Rudolph Petersen (Clift) and Irene Hoffman (Garland); simple people who endured incredible suffering at the hands of these judges. Petersen, a mentally disabled baker’s helper, was sterilized because of his simple-mindedness, and Hoffman, a middle-aged hausfrau who in her youth was suspected of engaging in an intimate relationship with an older Jewish man, spent several years in prison because she refused to testify against him. (The Jewish man was executed on the grounds of “racial contamination.”) Both Clift and Garland file heartfelt, intensely emotional performances that magnify the impact of these atrocious violations by reducing them to a human level. Clift is especially riveting - and unnerving - during his brief sequence, conducting a master class in the art of acting, while Garland’s honesty and naturalness make her work equally affecting and memorable. Both received well-deserved Oscar nominations in the supporting category; Clift lost to George Chakiris and Garland lost to Rita Moreno, both from ‘West Side Story.’ (Nothing against Chakiris and Moreno, who excelled in their roles, but neither exhibited the same degree of range and raw emotion as Clift and Garland.)
Schell, however, won Best Actor, beating co-star Tracy, whose measured, introspective portrayal is richly satisfying and beautifully underplayed. Tracy doesn’t say much, but his words carry substantial import, and his telling reaction shots while listening to testimony silently express concern, outrage, and devastation. And yet the fiery, showier Schell eclipses him, instantly grabbing our attention and holding it throughout long, eloquent, impassioned speeches and blistering cross examinations. It’s a brilliant, bravura performance that was justly rewarded by the Academy. In her film swan song, Dietrich brings honor and refinement to a role that was very close to her heart, while Widmark shines as the ferociously righteous prosecutor, and a young William Shatner makes an impression as an affable military adjunct. Only Lancaster - a last-minute replacement for Laurence Olivier - struggles for credibility as Janning, a man who’s ashamed of his actions, but boldly justifies them.
The all-star nature of ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ slightly dulls its impact, as it’s occasionally difficult to divorce the iconic personalities from their respective roles, but the material is so vital and important it overcomes the slick Hollywood treatment. Length is also an issue - the film runs a minute shy of three hours and includes an intermission. Some judicious trimming would certainly improve the movie, but the story rarely drags. Kramer maintains visual interest by cleverly employing a mobile camera in the courtroom, and location shooting in the bombed out Nuremberg ruins - still disheveled 15 years after the end of the war - lends the drama essential authenticity.
‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ received a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, winning only for actor and adapted screenplay (‘West Side Story’ won 10, so there weren’t many left over), but even though Kramer lost the Best Director prize, he received an equally notable, if less publicized, honor - the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, presented to “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” Kramer’s film canon speaks for itself, but without question, ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ was the catalyst for this award and it remains his crowning cinematic achievement.
More than 50 years later, the impact and relevancy of this gripping drama haven’t diminished, the performances continue to move us, and the issues the film raises still provoke spirited debate - all of which cement its reputation as a great and enduring motion picture. ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’ isn’t perfect, but it’s important, and hopefully this Blu-ray release will spark renewed interest in a movie everyone should see.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Judgment at Nuremberg' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 special edition release, and is packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay on the film by Julie Kirgo, as well as many black-and-white scene shots and production stills, is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
If it weren't plagued by print defects, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'Judgment at Nuremberg' would earn a higher grade, but too many errant marks, a few gaping holes, some vertical lines, and a couple of other instances of miscellaneous damage diminish one's affection for this otherwise vibrant effort. Excellent contrast and clarity highlight Ernest Laszlo's striking black-and-white, Oscar-nominated cinematography, with superior gray scale variance supplying a palpable sense of depth and enhancing fine details. Deep, inky blacks make a powerful statement, heightening the gravity of the proceedings, and Tracy's snowy white hair nicely stands out against his ebony judge's robe. Grain levels fluctuate from faint to medium - not a big surprise for a three-hour movie that hasn't undergone a complete restoration - but the image always maintains a wonderful film-like feel. Dazzling close-ups, however, steal the show. From the voluminous folds of Tracy's weathered and wrinkled face to Dietrich's trademark sunken cheeks, Clift's hollow eyes, and Schell's chiseled glamour, every facial feature is exceptionally well rendered. The picture is so sharp, you can even see bits of spit projecting from the mouths of Widmark and Schell during their impassioned orations. No crush, noise, or other digital anomalies are present, so it's doubly disappointing to see so many source issues afflict this otherwise stellar transfer. They can't be ignored, so they definitely impact the viewing experience, but despite their constant intrusion, this is still the best home video incarnation of 'Judgment at Nuremberg.'
Both a brand new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track and the original mono track, presented in lossless DTS-HD MA, are included on the disc, along with an isolated music and effects track. Only the 5.1 option, however, includes the overture, entr'acte music, and exit music. While there's not much surround activity to speak of on the 5.1 track, a good deal of stereo separation across the front channels gives the dialogue a nice directional feel. Unfortunately, the sudden implementations of the effect are often a bit jarring and choppy, yet the separation does provide a heightened sense of immersion in the action, lending the claustrophobic courtroom more breathing room.
Though such age-related imperfections as hiss, pops, and crackle are absent, occasional hints of mild distortion crop up now and then. Dynamic range is limited, however Ernest Gold's music score flaunts a decent amount of fidelity and tonal depth, and Abby Mann's all-important dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, even when spoken by actors with accents. While far from superior, the audio is certainly serviceable and a nice step up from the tracks included on previous home video editions of this film.
All the extras - with the exception of a photo gallery - from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to this release.
"In Conversation with Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell" (SD, 19 minutes) - The Oscar-winning writer and star of 'Judgment at Nuremberg' sit down for an informal and enlightening tête-á-tête that begins as a meeting of the mutual admiration society, but soon addresses more substantive issues. Mann discusses the genesis of the project, Schell recalls the German reaction to the film and personal criticism he received for participating in it, and the two reminisce about the 'Playhouse 90' television play that inspired the movie, as well as the Broadway production that followed it many years later. We also learn how director Stanley Kramer insisted Schell reprise his 'Playhouse 90' role in the film version, despite Marlon Brando's intense lobbying for the part, and Schell speaks warmly about the generosity of Spencer Tracy during shooting.
Featurette: "The Value of a Single Human Being" (SD, 6 minutes) - Mann reflects on the disturbing subject matter of 'Judgment at Nuremberg,' and cites patriotism as the villain of the piece. He also compares the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany to the blacklisting of many Hollywood professionals during the McCarthy Communist witch hunts in the U.S. in the 1950s. Several black-and-white and color photos from the film enahnce this brief but affecting piece.
Featurette: "A Tribute to Stanley Kramer" (SD, 14 minutes) - Mann and Kramer's widow, former actress Karen Sharpe Kramer, share their memories of the acclaimed director and his commitment to producing socially conscious motion picture fare. Sharpe recounts the events leading up to their marriage, while Mann recalls how Katharine Hepburn helped him bring the Nuremberg project to the screen. Both discuss the deep impact the Holocaust films had on Kramer, the courage required to mount the movie in the face of government opposition, the response of the actors to Kramer, and the Berlin premiere. Rare photos and a couple of film clips round out this absorbing, celebratory featurette.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview provides glimpses of the powerful performances given by the all-star cast.
We all know about the Holocaust, and yet the atrocities that occurred in Germany during World War II never cease to shock, horrify, and disgust us, no matter how often we're reminded of them. Stanley Kramer's 'Judgment at Nuremberg' presents the evidence in a straightforward manner with a minimum of proseltyzing, and provides the German perspective as well. The result is an absorbing, powerfully acted, thought provoking, and emotionally wrenching study of blind allegiance, self deception, shattered lives, and a passionate crusade for both justice and a measure of comprehension about acts that are incomprehensible. Though the all-star cast at times detracts from the sober subject matter, lending it an unnecessary glossy feel, the strong performances transcend the actors' notoriety and ultimately heighten the material's impact. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation isn't optimal, but it serves the film well, featuring solid, if flawed, video and audio transfers, and a few interesting supplements. More than 50 years after its initial release, 'Judgment at Nuremberg' remains an important, masterfully executed film that merits our attention and deservedly earns a high recommendation.