In 1948, a court led by the allied nations tries four Judges for war crimes.
One could think, how hard would it be to convict a Nazi? The answer is a lot more complicated than you would think. The Nuremberg trials blazed new ground in law. The existing laws were quite simply not up to judging what was then termed mega-death, or holocaust, the systematic destruction of millions of people by an entire Government.
Questions such as: Does a defendant’s following orders absolve him of guilt? Is it even possible to try judges for ruling according to the laws of their country? What if the person never joined the Nazi party and was simply an employee of the German Government?
These are some of the questions raised and answered in Judgement at Nuremberg. The film opens with the officers of the court heading to the trial. When they arrive, we find out that the inmates awaiting trial aren’t Gestapo, SS officers or military leaders. Those had been tried 3 years earlier. These men are German judges, some of the most influential and learned men of their era. One of the men Dr. Janning, is even an internationally famous and respected law expert. He refuses to recognize the authority of the court to even try him.
The crimes they are accused of are listed dramatically by the prosecutor, played by Richard Widmark.
Dr. Janning’s defense attorney, played powerfully by Maximillian Schell, counters that a judge does not make law, he only carries out the law of his country. “My country right or wrong.” That to disobey or evade the law would be considered treasonous.
Spencer Tracy plays the Chief Judge at the trial and gives a powerful performance.
Also notable are the performances of Judy Garland and Marlena Dietrich. If you’ve only seen Judy Garland in her musicals this performance will be a surprise for you. Also watch for a young William Shatner.
Most of the film consists of courtroom testimony, interspersed with scenes of postwar Germany. These side glimpses into Germany are interesting because they show the complicated ideas and emotions running through the populace. Resentment at defeat, guilt for crimes committed, fear of instability and hunger.
As the film progresses we start to see the evidence weighed against the men. This film does not pull any punches and shows some horrifying and graphic images of what the Nazi war machine did to people it considered it’s enemies and the complicity of the men on trial in the atrocities.
This film is an important one, not just because of considerable artistic merit, but because of the questions it answers. It shows a side of Nazi Germany many people are not aware of. The Nazi war machine was not just tanks, bombers and guns. It was a political and cultural system that indoctrinated and turned the entire country into a weapon. Before they turned outward against their neighbors, the German Reich perfected it’s apparatus on its own people.
Far from being uninvolved or not being aware. Millions of ordinary German people openly and enthusiastically collaborated in the murder and suppression of their neighbors. Jews, Gypsies, religious and conscientious objectors as well as the mentally ill and people deemed by the Reich to be subhuman due to racial, cultural, or sexual differences, were imprisoned, enslaved and murdered on an industrial scale. A scale so large the human mind has trouble fathoming it.
Judgment at Nuremberg shows how far the Nazi apparatus penetrated into Germany as a whole, coopting law, culture and the populace itself. These respected Jurists signed off on the most monstrous orders, some suppressing their own conscience.
At 3 hours, this is a very long film. But it is well worth your time. Especially if you are a fan of history or courtroom dramas. The courtroom pyrotechnics are some of the best I’ve ever seen. Some of the scenes are intense, especially when showing the atrocities of the holocaust.
Verdict: 4 Gavels out of 5
Powerful story exploring the meaning of justice and moral courage.