In 1947, four German judges who served on the bench during the Nazi regime face a military tribunal to answer charges of crimes against humanity. Chief Justice Haywood (Spencer Tracy) hears evidence and testimony not only from lead defendant Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and his defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), but also from the widow of a Nazi general (Marlene Dietrich), an idealistic U.S. Army captain (William Shatner) and reluctant witness Irene Wallner (Judy Garland).
Arguably the greatest movie courtroom drama of all time, Director Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg features not one, not two or three, but four outstanding leading performances from actors Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell (who won the Best Actor Oscar), Burt Lancaster, and Richard Widmark. Great supporting performances abound too, most notably from Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. Heck, even William Shatner is in this thing – who's most notable now for being the only surviving member of the cast (or at least those with speaking roles).
The trial here is mostly fictional, but the source of Writer Abby Mann's screenplay is not: His tale is based upon the famous (and indeed infamous) "Judges' Trial" of 1947 – a war crimes trial against 16 judges and lawyers of Nazi Germany for crimes against humanity (one of the 16 accused committed suicide before the trial even began). Mann's script whittles down the accused to a more drama-manageable four defendants, but the general gist remains the same.
Before it came to the big screen in 1961, Mann's story was a TV production (on the CBS Anthology series "Playhouse 90") where star Maximilian Schell played the same role that he does in the movie (as German defense attorney Hans Rolfe). It was screen legend Katharine Hepburn who helped convince Spencer Tracy to take on the lead role in the film (as Judge Dan Haywood), while Marlon Brando lobbied hard for the part of Rolfe. However, both Mann and Stanley Kramer were so impressed with Schell's performance in the TV version; they knew having him in the movie would be the right move.
The four defendants in the movie's trial – one of whom is played by Burt Lancaster (as Dr. Ernst Janning) – are all accused of enforcing Nazi law and decrees that not only led people to be sterilized and sent to prison but, in many cases, executed. The driving theme of the film is the question of personal responsibility. Are the men as guilty as Hitler and his officers, or were they merely patriots who were trying to serve their country for the "better good" of Germany? The answer is not as cut and dry as you might think, and one of the pluses of Judgment at Nuremberg is that it's a movie that doesn't provide any "easy" answers. It makes you think, and viewers may still be pondering the questions posed long after Judge Haywood gives his final verdict.
This theatrical version of Judgment at Nuremberg is notable for other reasons than just its strong performances and themes: it was the first movie to present actual footage of Nazi concentration camps to the public. The footage is graphic and difficult to watch even by today's film standards, but it manages to make an already important film even a more important one by not shying away from the subject matter.
Although both Schell and Mann walked away with Oscars for this great film, the voters' darling for 1961 was West Side Story, which – while certainly a great movie – doesn't have (despite its themes of tolerance and non-violence) nearly the depth, emotional impact, or the stellar performances that Judgment at Nuremberg does. If you've never seen this film because (a) it's old, (b) it's in black and white, or (c) you think it's topic is no longer relevant, do yourself a big favor and set aside a weekend afternoon (or your next sick day) to take a look at this brilliant movie. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Judgment at Nuremberg finds justice on Blu-ray with a 50GB dual-layer disc housed inside a standard Elite keepcase. A 22-page full-color booklet featuring box covers (four to a page) of other "Studio Classics" releases from Kino Lorber is the sole insert. There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray, whose main menu is a still image of the box cover, with menu selections horizontally along the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray is Region A locked.
Please Note: The back of the box cover lists the running time as 186 minutes, but the actual running time of this film is 179 minutes and some change (21 seconds to be exact). The difference? This version (as well as the Twilight Time Blu-ray that preceded it) excises a nearly four-minute "Overture" of music at the beginning and a three-and-a-half-minute musical "Exit" at the conclusion. Such intros of music used to be par for the course (although exit music was less common) for lengthy and/or high-profile movies but were done away with by the 1980s (the last major release I remember having one was a short overture for Star Trek: The Motion Picture). The bottom line here is that, despite the discrepancy in runtime, the full film is here, unedited – although the "purist" may find this version slightly "incomplete."
Judgement at Nuremberg was shot on 35mm film and is presented here at the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is slightly different than the original theatrical ratio of 1.75:1, but not enough to make for a major visual difference in its presentation. This Kino Lorber release marks the second time the movie has come to Blu-ray, having been released in a limited (3,000 copies) edition by Twilight Time back in 2014. I don't own that version, but since both Twilight Time (then) and Kino Lorber (now) would have been provided with the transfer by 20th Century Fox (who handles distribution for MGM titles), it's very likely that this is the same transfer that existed on the Twilight Time disc.
Visually, there's still a good deal of dirt and debris on the print (and at least one vertical line I noticed) – distractingly so in the movie's opening credits, but not so much once the main story begins. Grain is present and noticeable in every shot, but never obtrusive. Details throughout are pretty good for a movie of this age. I did notice a couple of scenes where there was a slight flickering in the background of shots, but for the most part, this is a nice – although far from reference quality – transfer of the movie. It's not going to "wow" viewers the way a detailed frame-by-frame restoration would provide, but all things considered, I was quite happy.
The only audio track on this release is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track. The audio here is decent, and mostly well-rendered, but not without some scenes where the actors' voices seem noticeably lower than they are elsewhere. As you might already know, Judgment at Nuremberg is very much a dialogue-heavy movie with the vast majority of its three-hour run time taking place in a courtroom. There are some deviations from that setting, however, as when Spencer Tracy's character makes his way to a German nightclub where signing is taking place. These scenes sound decent, but there's not much variation (if any) between the right and left speakers. Still, I'm happy to report that other than some change in volume levels, I didn't pick up on any popping, hissing, or other problems one often finds with the track from an older film.
Subtitles are available in English SDH.
Please Note: The three featurettes detailed below are all archival materials that first appeared on MGM's 2004 DVD release of the movie. They also all appeared on the earlier Twilight Time Blu-ray release.
In Conversation (SD 19:39) – A conversation between writer Abby Mann and star Maximilian Schell (both now deceased) about both the movie version and the television version of Judgment at Nuremberg.
A Tribute to Stanley Kramer (SD 14:28) – Stanley Kramer's widow, actress Karen Sharpe Kramer, talks about her late husband. Also included here are comments from Abby Mann.
The Value of a Single Human Being (HD 6:03) – Abby Mann reads dialogue from his original script, with stills from the movie playing on the screen. He then talks about the story, his ideas behind writing it, and its ongoing relevance.
Trailers – A collection of five trailers (each of which must be viewed individually), consisting of the trailer for this film (SD 3:02); Inherit the Wind (SD 4:05); On the Beach (SD 4:46); Not as a Stranger (HD 3:13); and A Child is Waiting (HD 2:44).
Still relevant even over 50 years later, Judgment at Nuremberg is perhaps the greatest courtroom drama ever captured on celluloid, with fantastic performances from a number of Hollywood legends. Although Kino's Blu-ray release doesn't offer up either new bonus materials or the most perfect of A/V transfers, that doesn't mean this one isn't still Highly Recommended and deserves a spot on any collector's shelf. The only caveat being that those who already own the Twilight Time release will find nothing new here, so there's no reason to upgrade.