“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) is a perfect union of script, stage, and screen. In few other films is dialogue so completely depended upon to move the action, tell the back story, and dramatize the events. That this is accomplished with such graceful simplicity in this movie is its most astonishing and crowning achievement.
This is our last entry in our series on “Uneasy Victors” in which we examine Hollywood films tackling American involvement, and American mood, in Occupied Germany after World War II. Our intro to this series is here. We discuss “A Foreign Affair” (1948) here, and “The Big Lift” (1950) here. Yesterday, we marked the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought our entry into World War II, and our eventual role as uneasy victors.
The startling beginning to this film serves as a metaphor for the movie and our series: the German martial tune “Wenn wir marshieren” is sung by a male chorus, of whom we might imagine to be soldiers. Then the footage showing the concrete swastika on the Nuremberg stadium being exploded to nothing.
But the regime we had defeated, and the people who lived in that world, did not vanish into nothing. They were before us now, real, alive, and carrying more baggage from the recent terrible past than most of them wanted to admit. And we find ourselves at a sudden full stop. The warrior's drive it took to win the war must be muted to a stateman's diplomacy.
Spencer Tracy is a semi-retired American judge from Maine, who is assigned to head the tribunal in the Judges Trial phase of the Nuremberg Trials which served to try and punish Nazi officials. All the big names and the higher-ups have had their day in court, and this new trial before us focuses on lesser figures. They are smaller fish.
The Germans, the Europeans, and the Americans back home are growing weary of the trials and losing interest. There is something at stake, however, we come to understand, in just letting bygones be bygones. As prosecuting attorney Richard Widmark sarcastically retorts to rumblings that he should just drop the case, “What was the war all about?”
There is also a danger in proceeding with this trial. One of the accused men is a famous German judge who worked diligently for democracy in the Weimar Republic before Hitler took power. Played by Burt Lancaster with enigmatic dignity, he has a long career of distinguished and honorable work, and is a hero to his people. It will not be easy to try and convict him.
This movie, then, is about compromise. When do to it. When not to. What are the consequences? There are always consequences.
Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift play victims called to give testimony. Both give the performances of their careers.
But most evident through this film, though we do not see them, are the director, Stanley Kramer, and the writer, Abby Mann. Mann’s script was originally produced on TV in the acclaimed series “Playhouse 90”, which we discussed in this previous post. “Playhouse 90” also gave us “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Miracle Worker”, and never was television so good.
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that this film is a union of script and stage, and when I say stage in this case I mean stagecraft. The “Playhouse 90” version (Maximillian Schell and Werner Klemperer reprise their roles here), because of the restrictions of early television was very much like a stage play in the sense that the action was static, one set with simple camera placement.
What were restrictions on television became style in this movie, and used to extremely dramatic effect. Though most of the action takes place in the courtroom in an exchange of dialogue between the witness and the attorney, the camera is always, always moving. We slide in a slow, graceful dance around the courtroom, as the camera probes the many uniformed personnel. The translators, the guards, the gallery of observers, the stony-faced defendants, and nervous testifiers in the witness stand.
It would be a good lesson for young filmmakers who these days seem to have almost uniformly adopted the quick edited, jerky camera habit to see what mature and elegant cinematography looks like.
The most magnificent CGI or special effect is not more dramatic than a slow, intimate close-up on human tears.
The judge at her trial was Burt Lancaster.
Maximillian Schell’s defense of the accused judges ranges from brutally tearing apart the witnesses’ claims, to an even more insidious tactic -- the time-worn defense of merely following orders. But both these tactics are brilliant and thrust to the heart of the American conscience -- our own uncomfortable conscience at being occupiers.
The camera pauses to let us see this stick in the throats of Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark.
We have already been clued into Lancaster’s moral righteousness. Schell has outlined his exemplary judiciary career. But we get a personal, dramatic taste from Marlene Dietrich.
Spencer Tracy discovers that the mansion in which the US Army has billeted him during this trial was confiscated from Dietrich, the wife of a German general who was previously tried and executed. Having usurped her home, Mr. Tracy feels most intimately the role of the Uneasy Victor.
“There’s one thing about Americans,” Widmark bitterly remarks, “We’re not cut out to be occupiers. We’re new at it, and we’re not very good at it.”
Tracy and Marlene meet socially, and he is intrigued with her soignée class and intelligence. She is an aristocrat, the daughter and the wife of career military men. She invites him to a concert, proud to show another side, a cultured, genteel side of German life. Over the strains of Beethoven, Spencer Tracy looks around at the audience, wondering what is in the hearts and minds of these conquered people so bravely looking beyond their recent past to a future swept clean…by what?
Tracy is a kind of Mark Twain/Abraham Lincoln character in this movie, small town American, homespun horse sense, self deprecating, and a willingness to keep an open mind. When he meets Marlene in a charming tavern -- again, for the third time in this series we are taken out to the cabaret -- she tries harder to impress upon him the respectability of the German people, despite what their own political monsters have done to them.
To this end, she tells a story about Burt Lancaster, who in a social gathering, discovering a smarmy Hitler flirting with his wife, bravely and with disgust bestows upon The Little Corporal a rebuke no less severe than he has given to Maximillian Schell in the courtroom, and no less public.
Marlene then catapults the conversation to the ultimate question at hand and the thing that Tracy really wants to know: Do you really think we knew about the concentration camps and the murder of millions? We didn’t know.
In court, Richard Widmark has finally shown the footage of the concentration camps and what Allied soldiers, like himself, found there when they marched in and liberated them. Widmark, in his crisp, carefully enunciated speech (they had voices then) narrates the movie.
“How DARE they show us those films!” Werner Klemperer, one of the defendants shrieks.
In the tavern, we hear the soft tenor singing, “Du, du liegst mir in Herzen....”
The judges had to make their rulings based upon the laws they were given, which was based on the political influence at the time.
American judges are also influenced by politics, we see, as Tracy’s fellow judge, Ray Teal insists they must be lenient on the Germans because the Soviets are worse. He calls prosecutor Widmark “a radical” and a “protégé of FDR.” Conservatives hated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, vilified him, and their political progeny continue to do the same. Ray Teal wants to know where Tracy stands.
“I’m a rock-ribbed Republican who thought Franklin Roosevelt was a great man.”
“Oh. One of those.”
“We did not know!” She insists.
Tracy, struggling with his uncertainty replies, “As far as I can make out, no one in this country knew.”
It has been reported that Marlene hated doing this scene, to play the spokeswoman for a regime she personally hated, to the point where it made her physically ill.
“As a German, I feel ashamed that such things could have taken place in my country,” Maximillian Schell, barely containing his anger responds, “But I do think it was wrong, indecent, and terribly unfair of the prosecutor to show such things….”
He pleads with Lancaster to keep silent and not take the stand, “We have to look to the future. We can’t turn back now. Do you want the Americans to stay here forever?” Besides, he says, the Americans do not have the right to judge them, and brings up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Is that their superior morality?”
Burt takes the stand and explains in passionate shame how a man, and a country, could use love of country as an excuse to deny rights to the individual. He is the picture of dignified self-loathing, near tears. He describes himself as a man “worse than all of them because he knew what they were and went along with them…made his life excrement because he worked with them.”
Wanting to explain personally to Tracy about the millions who were persecuted, Lancaster tells him, “I never knew it would come to that.”
Tracy replies, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
Another political compromise?
It’s a cynical ending to an earnest film with a passionate message. The movie had its world premiere in Berlin on December 14, 1961 -- West Berlin now, as four months before, the German Democratic Republic built the Berlin Wall. Doubtless, the audience considered that and may have been distracted by current events from this magnificent movie. Did current events render the film obsolete and irrelevant?
We’ll close this series by giving Marlene Dietrich the last word. In 1960, before this film was made, she took her cabaret act to Berlin for the first time, where she was greeted with a pained mixture of welcome, and furor by those who still resented her for “betraying” her homeland. After this movie came out, she took her act to Israel, which welcomed her as a celebrity who was well known to be anti-Nazi.
However, Marlene was advised not to sing any songs in German, as that language was taboo there at the time. Marlene broke the taboo and sang in German, and was cheered, especially for the song shown below (though this footage is from a later European concert). It is “Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind.” You will recognize it as Pete Seeger’s, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”
We may smile at her limited vocal range, and at her studied showmanship, but there is something wonderfully transcendent in this German rendition of an American anti-war song. Especially when it is sung by this German actress. This American actress.
Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music so you can hear the video.