Judgement at Nuremberg: Still a must-see

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MARLENE DIETRICH:  You think we knew of those things?  We did not know.

SPENCER TRACY:  Mrs. Bertholt, as far as I can make out no one knew.

We have to forget to go on living, she continues, and fellow diners, taking her advice to heart, pound beer steins on tables and sing with gusto. Later Marlene Dietrich, taut as ever, will drop a tear as the Nazi judges are convicted of crimes against humanity. Judgement at Nuremberg, released in 1961, packs a punch, still needed today.

It’s 1948 and Spencer Tracy ─  Judge Dan Haywood ─ rides through a wrecked Nuremberg, clearly out of his element. A practical and honest man ─ I finally got Spencer Tracy ─ he admits he was not America’s first choice to head the war crimes tribunal. No one wanted the job. “They had to beat the backwoods of Maine for me,” he tells Captain Harrison Byers, his liaison, graduate of West Point, a slim and amazingly good-looking William Shatner.

Day one in court and all the defendants plead nicht schuldig not guilty except a clenched Burt Lancaster, fantastic posture, who rebuffs the court’s authority. He’s Ernst Janning, a once internationally respected legal mind and author, now miserable.

Richard Widmark, who’s developed a conscience since cast as the laughing nutjob who pushed a woman in a wheelchair down a staircase in Kiss of Death, is prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson,  and the Swiss Maximillian Schell, cleft-chinned and handsome, on his way to an Oscar, is tasked with defense.

The salt of the earth Judge Haywood takes his work seriously, outside the courtroom too. Billeted in the former mansion of aristocratic Mrs. Bertholt and her hanged officer husband, he’s catered to by a guilty-looking couple bowing and scraping nonstop. He asks (“I know many good people like you back home”) what they knew.

“The things they said Hitler did to Jews and others we knew nothing about it. We were not political.” They eye each other nervously. “We suffered too.”

A new day at court and Montgomery Clift, his heartthrob days history, takes the witness stand. The man is clearly a wreck. He was sterilized under the racial laws, classified an imbecile. His father had been a communist.

Ernst Janning signed the hereditary court’s decision and defense attorney Hans Rolfe rises to prove the man got what he deserved. He’s uneducated like his mother and can’t do a simple mental test. “I’m half the man I used to be since that day,” Clift honestly admits while Judge Haywood stares stunned.

Later the judge gets to relax a bit until, out to eat with colleagues and Mrs. Bertholt, a reporter stops by to say the American public is no longer interested in the trials. Prosecutor Lawson stumbles over drunk: no one in the country takes responsibility, forgiving and forgetting easily. Mrs. Bertholt pipes in, “We were not all monsters.”

The woman doesn’t give up. After an evening stroll through the ruins and getting to recite the lyrics to Lili Marleen ─ singing would have been inappropriate ─  the uptight widow, surprisingly seductive, makes the judge a cup of coffee (“ersatz”) in her bombed apartment and insists men like Ernst Janning and her husband hated Hitler. But what really ticks her off is her husband denied the dignity of a firing squad as befitted an officer. He was hanged instead for the SS killing of American POWs at Malmedy.

While the judge struggles to understand ─ “I have to” ─ Col. Lawson is off to Berlin to get Irene Hoffman to testify. Her Jewish landlord visited her when she was a teen and was killed for race pollution.  He tells Irene who’s in no hurry to leave town they mustn’t be allowed to get away with it. Her husband simply says they will in the end. He also worries their humble photography shop will be vandalized. Lawson promises armed guards.

Later in court he shows films of the camps, and in the evening, Judge Haywood and Mrs. Bertholt are out on another date, an odd couple with chemistry, when she disses the screening: Colonel Lawson again dragged out his favorite pix, his own rogue’s gallery.

Finally Judy Garland comes to court, Irene Hoffman, who spent two years in prison for breaking the race laws. She holds she did nothing wrong as attorney Rolfe beats her down. She did more than sit on the man’s lap. Her punishment was just.

Ernst Janning has had enough. The camera goes from tight closeup of the badgering defense lawyer to a quick zoom into Janning who stands and breaks his silence: “Are we going to do this again?

We knew. We were aware of concentration camps. Maybe we didn’t know the details. But if we didn’t know it was because we didn’t want to know.

…People like us thought it was only a stage. The country is in danger. The passing phase became a way of life.”

Meanwhile pressure is mounting to accelerate the trials. Berlin has been blockaded and a US Senator warns the judges America needs Germany on its side; people are unlikely to help if their leaders are sentenced. He scans the group: “More strudel, gentlemen?”

Back at court, defense attorney Rolfe tries a new tack. He can’t deny his client’s guilt but a lot of others share it: the Soviet Union, Vatican, Winston Churchill and American industrialists all went along. If Ernst Janning is guilty so is the world.

Maybe there’s a lot of guilt to go around but Dan Haywood isn’t buying the argument. After nearly three hours ─ well worth the wait ─ the verdict is in.

The accused in the dock consciously participated in crimes that violated “all moral concepts known to civilized nations…the crimes beggar the imagination. The world must stand for the value of a single human life.”

Guilty: life imprisonment, and Marlene Dietrich in the balcony sheds her tear.

It’s all over and Judge Haywood’s packing. He dials Mrs. Bertholt who won’t pick up. She’s depressed in the dark, still sulking her spouse missed out on the firing squad and the Nazis are headed to jail.

The servants send the judge off with strudel and he makes one last stop, at the prison where Ernst Janning had asked to see him.

He wants to set the record straight: “Those millions of people, I never knew it would come to that.” Dan Haywood: “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” Director Stanley Kramer’s film delivers.

Crew and cast help. Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s tight shots, quick zooms and 360° circling camera animate a static courtroom set. The cast can act, with some good creds to boot. Marlene Dietrich sang for the Allies. Burt Lancaster supported the Civil Rights Movement and spoke against the Hollywood blacklist. So did Judy.

The script is a scene stealer. Abby Mann won an Oscar and the points made are still called for today.




About the Author
Donna Schatz is an Israeli-American photographer, documentary producer and former TV camerawoman who worked in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon as well as Bosnia and the US.
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