I have been wanting to review this determined movie for some time, so why not now? Here goes. This film deals with one of the most controversial legal (not moral) questions of the 20th century: Were these Judges’ trials (a part of the Nuremberg Trials), the result of the Allies having been victorious, hence, merely victors’ spoils (as Goering contended) or, in fact, proceedings that had a true, sound basis in law (as the United States, the Soviet Union, and England contended). To try to avoid resolving this question, Winston Churchill proposed that the leading Nazis be summarily executed by using a legal procedure known as a “Bill of Attainder”—a process by which a legislative body declares a person or people guilty without the benefit of trial. Indeed, it is well known that the (Allied) trial justices knew they had to find at least some of the criminals not guilty specifically to avoid the trials being characterized as victors’ spoils.
However, on the other side of the argument is that these were crimes against humanity, the likes of which had until then been unknown to so-called civilized societies. Furthermore, the participants knew the atrocities they were committing or contributing to violated every sense of human decency for which accountability would later be dished out (heavily) should the Germans lose the war.
The film begins to address this seemingly central and novel question, but leaves this debate behind soon after it is raised; the trial and its attendant drama move forward, drawing in its audience. Judy Garland’s testimony proves to be pivotal and riveting. (And, its premise is based on a true German case from 1942.) The defense continues to claim that the trial is really solely for the benefit of the Allies and not for meting out justice, but it’s a losing argument–for obvious reasons.
We’re treated to a cast that just won’t quit: Spencer Tracey, William Shatner, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Werner Klemperer (AKA Colonel Klink), and Maximilian Schell, who gave an out-of-this-world performance.
Stanley Kramer, the film’s producer and director, when he did take a position on a matter, made no apologies for creating “message films.” Though his transparent, clear motives have the potential to age poorly, (this doesn’t happen here), there’s no doubt that he had the stature and courage to approach controversial issues – such as racism (“The Defiant Ones” (1958)), religion and politics (“Inherit the Wind” (1960)), and the Holocaust, (“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961)) with conviction and clarity. The movie is so convinced of its own importance that Kramer surely had advance notice of the imminent, eleven Oscar nominations before opening production. Fortunately, the self-importance is quite justified. The epic 186-minute courtroom drama tackles some fundamental War issues, such as the accountability of so-called responsible, highly-educated, and highly-placed German citizens for events of the Holocaust and how patriotism can eclipse and corrupt human conduct, decency, and basic morals. Armed with a mighty cast of Hollywood stars, Kramer dissects the Judges’ Trials at Nuremberg, exposing madness, tragedy, and hypocrisy.