Judgement at Nuremberg (1961)
Starring Spencer Tracy, Maximillian Schell, Burt Lancaster and Marlene Dietrich
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Abby Mann
A few years after the end of World War II, a battered Europe is beyond ready to move on. Germany, now that the atrocities of the concentration camps are out in the open, is in a state of shock as a country. Its people struggle to deal with the reality of what it’s done, wondering how it could have allowed the systematic eradication of its Jewish population, undesirable elements and political enemies. The United States is already moving on to its next conflict, setting the pieces in place to fight a cold war with the growing communist threat of the Soviet Union.
But before we can put the war to rest, there’s this small matter of deciding what to do about the judges, military officers and others who solidified Nazi policies into the law of the land. When these orders came from the top down, how much responsibility do the people in charge of putting them into motion carry with them? Should they be prosecuted for the horrific effects of these policies? Or is their duty to carrying out the will of their state — right or wrong — of greater importance than a more universal set of morality? How do we decide to treat war criminals when they had only limited power with which to resist committing these crimes?
Judgement at Nuremberg is about the trial of 98 civil servants in post-war Germany, mainly boiled down to the question of what to do about five judges who presided over the courts and passed rulings that lead to the sterilization of some, the death or imprisonment of others, the horrors of the concentration camps to too many. The crux of the trial is that very question — how much responsibility do we give to actors of the state when the country has essentially legalized war crimes? Does personal and/or social survival form an effective excuse for a complete lapse in moral judgement? Or should we expect people to abandon their duty to their country if a more fundamental set of beliefs are violated?
Spencer Tracy stars as Presiding Judge Dan Haywood, a former district court judge from Maine who is called upon to determine what happens to these men. Judge Haywood must not only decide the considerable issue in front of him, but he must also attempt to understand how an entire country could fall in line with these terrible ideals and resist the political pressure of his own country’s military as they prepare for a Cold — and possibly real — war with the Soviet Union.
I’ll jump right in and say this: Judgement at Nuremberg is an excellent movie that everyone in this country should see. The acting is genuinely great all around, lead by elder statesman Tracy as he guides a parade of stars through the proceedings. The cinematography is amazing, focusing on the people who are grappling with the consequences of their actions but pulling back just enough for you to understand the context and society in which they’re doing so. The direction is tight and crisp; even though this is a beast of a movie at 179 minutes, it really doesn’t feel like there’s any wasted time. Every scene is necessary to understand a facet of the issue, or the motivations of the characters dealing with them.
Director Stanley Kramer does a wonderful job exploring the full texture of Abby Mann’s Oscar-winning Adapted Screenplay. There are so many interesting ideas at work here — watching Germany wake up from its National Socialist nightmare with bewilderment and guilt and a desperate desire to reaffirm its own morality makes many of the “ordinary” Germans Haywood meet sympathetic but also infuriating. “We had no idea” is a common refrain for so many of them, but how could they not understand what was happening in their own country? How much of that ignorance was intentional — faced with the choice of confronting the knowledge of wrong-doing and being forced to act on it, or keeping your head down to attract as little attention from a brutal power structure as possible, what would you do? It’s hard to imagine myself in that position and not thinking I would be just like them — especially if I had a family or children to think about.
Beyond that, the movie posits that it wasn’t just Germany’s responsibility to stop Adolf Hitler before he attained a stranglehold on power; the world at large sat by and watched it happen — so if Germany’s judges and prosecutors are on trial then the governments of Europe should be too. Many of them also “had no idea” how far Hitler would go before he did, but how much of that ignorance was intentional? If we hold those in the judicial system responsible, why not the executives of other countries, or the diplomats, or the militaries? Where do we stop assigning the blame?
Judgement at Nuremberg also draws very interesting parallels between the Germany of the 1930s and the United States of the 1950s. Judge Haywood is told that political considerations must be factored into his decision, and that in order to successfully repel the threat of Communist Soviets America must have Germany on its side. Early in the proceedings of the trial, it’s accepted as fact that the National Socialist rose to power on the promise of stopping the Communist threat. It’s a slippery slope argument, true, but the idea that Haywood is asked to repeat the shading of the law here at the same time he’s supposed to condemn that very thing is unsettling — and likely true.
And that’s what makes this movie so vital for us today. It’s rare that you see entire nations reflect in on themselves about what it means to be American, or German, or British — and what, precisely, is the individual’s duty to the state. Judgement at Nuremberg reminds us that Nazi Germany put monsters in charge but was also populated by people just like you and me who thought being patriotic meant enacting the law of your country even when you disagreed with it, knew in your heart that it was unjust. Their reasons — and they all had their reasons — ranged from “what could we do about it even if we disagreed?” to “my country, right or wrong”. If we put ourselves in their positions — a married set of servants, or a wealthy socialite, or an intellectual interested in the rule of law — and we had to deal with our government systematically strip the rights of its minorities or political dissidents, what would we do? Honestly.
The political environment of Germany in the early 1930s has startling similarities to the political environment of our country in the 2010s. We’re willing to do anything, sacrifice anything in order to give ourselves the illusion of safety and control. We want to blame the foreign elements in our midst for our problems; we see a vague and shadowy threat to our very existence and want to attack anything that we know might upset the status quo. We are a deeply divided nation. And we have individuals running for office who claim to know just how we can restore our country to greatness — by tolerating no dissent, refusing any attempt at discourse, at identifying and removing anything that could even vaguely be a threat to our national security.
I wish I was being hyperbolic or alarmist by saying this, but I’m not. But we do have a choice, each and every one of us, about how we deal with what’s happening. Does history repeat itself? Or do we learn the hard lessons that were taught in our past?
In order to have a hope of answering these questions, we have to understand how it could have happened in the first place. What lead an entire nation of moral, upright people to install one of the most terribly brutal regimes in human history? What justifications did they use? How can we make sure we don’t fall prey to those same justifications?
I won’t claim that Judgement at Nuremberg offers complete answers to these questions, but watching this movie is an excellent start at wrapping your head around them.