Overlooked Classic Films: Judgment at Nuremberg

David B Morris
15 min readNov 26, 2023

More Than Thirty Years Before Schindler’s List, Stanley Kramer Took An Even More Fortright Look At the Holocaust -And Asked Questions We Still need too

The tag-line is accurate for once.

There’s a line attributed to either Sam Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer that basically tells how Hollywood even in its early days reacted to the idea of films they considered preachy: “If you want to deliver a message, use Western Union.’ Many directors got that message early in their careers and Hollywood hasn’t really changed in that perspective.

In my memory there are only three directors of note who basically spent their entire careers in the industry making films completely ignoring that warning and achieved both financial and critical success. Alphabetically, they were Norman Jewison, Stanley Kramer and Sidney Lumet. All three worked their entire careers in the studio system and in almost all their films, never backed away from telling entertaining stories that dealt with riveting social issues. All three had multiple films nominated for Best Picture and were nominated several times for Best Director, though none of them won in competition. But while Jewison and Lumet were fortunate enough to receive the equivalent of lifetime achievement awards when they were still active in the industry Kramer who predated both of them when it came to his career and who had long since stopped making films by the time of his death, never received recognition from the Academy, not even with a tribute segment at the 2001 Academy Awards a month after he had passed away at the age of 87. (He did receive the Irving Thalberg award in 1962, which in a sense was fitting.)

That is in a sense understandable because Kramer’s career was relatively short as a director. From 1955 to 1978, he only directed sixteen films as well as four films for TV. But what films! In the space of ten years, 1958–1967, he directed four movies that received Best Picture nominations. He’d also been in producing for awhile and had produced previous Best Picture nominees High Noon and The Caine Mutiny. And the movies that he made when he was at his peak as a director deserve to be considered some of the best of their era, in large part because he managed to make films that were about something and make money doing it.

These days when directors tend to make picture that are ‘message picture’ they have a habit of disguising it in what are called hyperlink movies (Traffic and Syriana, both written by Stephen Gaghan are the most obvious examples) or trying to do so in ways that are frequently heavy-handed (Adam McKay’s The Big Short and Vice are the most prominent recent examples.) Kramer’s films were always about the issues but no matter how bleak they were (and they could be bleak) he made sure that the audience had a good time. This was true in six of the movies at his peak, each of which took on issues the average filmgoer in the 1950s and late 1960s didn’t want to look at.

He started with The Defiant Ones a film which has one of the most memorable hooks of all time: Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, two escape convicts who hate each other, handcuffed together and running for their freedom. That formula has been copied countless times over the years but none have been able to look at the anger that was in this film which gave Curtis his only Oscar nomination and showed many brilliant character actors including Theodore Bikel and Boris Karloff doing memorable character turns.

He followed that with On The Beach, one of the first major movies to look at the world in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Set in Australia, the last place on earth where there is any life, the rest of humanity is counting down the weeks and days to their horrible deaths. In both of these films, Kramer does nothing to relent in the darkness of the vision.

Then came his adaption of Inherit The Wind, the roman a clef play about the John Scopes evolution trial. Spencer Tracy (a favorite of Kramer’s as you’ll see, earned an Oscar nomination for playing Clarence Darrow and the film features sterling performances by Frederic March and one of Gene Kelly’s few turns as a serious actor playing H.L. Mencken. The film looks at the issue of evolution on every side but also makes it clear that the most important thing in the world is an open mind something that Darrow has at the end but almost no one else does.

Later on came Ship of Fools, an adaptation if a group of passengers boarding a ship bound for Germany just prior to World War II. Adapted from Katherine Anne Porter’s best seller, Kramer looks at early 1930s society from angles that few would expect. The film received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture but shockingly Kramer was left out of the Best Director list.

The last film in this list is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a film that is admired by many and demeaned by the same amount as it looks at a middle-class couple who learn that their only daughter has married a black man without telling them. Kramer took huge abuse at the time because the doctor, played by Sidney Poitier, is so good that he does not seem to have a single flaw. Kramer said then and years later that this was a deliberate choice. By making Poitier’s character so utterly perfect, he was forcing the parents played by Tracy and Katherine Hepburn to realize that the only reason they could object was because their new son-in-law was black. He was forcing these good liberal people to confront their racism against their ideals. That it was not understood then or at the time may have been because the film was too subtle in an era where cinema was increasingly becoming louder and more divisive.

In his list of Great Movies Roger Ebert praises Kramer and considers Inherit the Wind to represent him. While I’ll admit that film is a masterpiece, I truly believe the film that represents just how much of a genius Kramer was is the film that he directed the following year Judgment at Nuremberg. I first rented this film when I was thirteen years old. It is one of those movies that was ‘substantial’ — it clocks in at 3 hours long, which amounted to two VHS tapes. I rented it four times in my early adolescence, watched it all the way through every time and I recognized it for the masterpiece it is.

More than sixty years after it debuted, it still holds up incredibly well and its reputation has not diminished. It currently ranks at #136 on imdb.com which is remarkable for a movie not merely that old but that does not have the reputation that, say, Citizen Kane or All About Eve or even The Hustler and West Side Story, both considered landmark films and were both nominated for Best Picture along with Judgment at Nuremberg. The film received twelve Oscar nominations and in a year dominated by West Side Story, it won Best Actor for Maximillian Schell and Best Adapted Screenplay by Abby Mann. Kramer received the Thalberg award at that year’s Oscars, perhaps as a consolation prize; he had won the Directors award from the Golden Globes that year.

The reason for the power of Judgment at Nuremberg is frankly obvious. Kramer chose to deal with the darkest subject of the era: the Holocaust, a subject no filmmaker other than Kramer would have dared touch that close to the end of World War II. These days, when it seems every year a major studio is making a film about the Holocaust in far more graphic ways than we would think, it is almost always about the survivors or the camps. The Nazis are almost always portrayed as unrelentingly evil and there is no room for common ground. These days we are so wrapped in the idea as how can anyone defend a Nazi. Kramer actually made a three hour film about the defense of the Nazis. But he also does so in a clever fashion. Yes the movie is about the Nuremberg trials, but it is not about the generals or the Gestapo, all of them are dead and gone by the start of the movie. The film is about four judges who gave rulings that would send so many of these Jews to camps, to prisons and to sterilize them. It is one thing to pronounce the people who committed these crimes as irredeemable; how do you make the argument the people who gave the sentences were? A judge’s job has always been to interpret the law, not to judge whether it is wrong. Kramer and Mann spend the entire film leaning it to that ambiguity.

The film is centered on a judge from America named Dan Haywood, played by Tracy, who by this time was getting the reputation that Meryl Streep now has of being able to give a good performance in their sleep. Kramer used Tracy in many of his films because by this time he had the ability to give a measured response of cynicism and idealism both of which have tempered by age but are still present. Haywood spends much of his time in the bombed-out husk of Berlin mansion with servants of a former German.

Haywood spends much of the film, hearing over and over the line from many German citizens that they did not know. At one point he says: “As far I can tell, no one in this country knew what was going on.” He remains impartial and indeed mostly silent in the majority of the film, which is the trial itself. Four judges are on trial, but most of the film centers on Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster. Janning was a respected and admired juror through much of his career but he views the entire process almost with detachment and silence. When the judges enter their pleas, he does not speak and his council says he represents him and refuses to enter a plea. He does not engage with his council for much of the movie and spends much of the time not talking at all.

Much of the back and forth is between the prosecuting attorney and Jannings’ attorney. Colonel Lawson is played by that brilliant actor Richard Widmark, who is in a sense Kramer’s voice for the rage that he feels against Nazism and the Holocaust. His opening makes it very clear that he shows no remorse for anything that is going on, particularly these judges, all of whom are elderly. “Their minds were not warped at an early age!” he shouts in his opening. We learn that he takes all of this personally because he was present at the liberation of Dachau.

In a moment that must have stunned the audiences of the time, Lawson himself takes the stand to enter into evidence films of the camps in the aftermath of the liberation. Actual footage of what happened is used during his description. Lawson moderates his tone to what is genuine sadness at what we see — and what we don’t see; at one point he mentions almost casually that a human pelvis has been used as an ashtray. Widmark is our only voice during this period as he mentions the estimates of the tragedy. “But the actual number of those who died, no one knows” are his closing remarks.

Widmark never got the credit he deserved for his work in this film (almost every other major actor was nominated for some award) but I find something brilliant in his performance. Being the voice of the director is not easy and Lawson has to balance the very realness of the horrors with the true problems with America at the time. The film is set in 1948 and the horrors of the Cold War are becoming prominent; the brass is worried about having Germany as an ally against Russia going forward. (The Berlin airlift is discussed in passing.) Lawson is constantly frustrated at being held in by protocol at having to treat these people he justifiably considers evil incarnate and not punish them. “We’re fair Americans and true-blue,” he says in a drunken stupor, when it comes to the idea of forgiving the Germans. “There are no Nazis in Germany. The Eskimos invaded Germany and took over.” Considering how many deals we made with Nazi scientists in the aftermath of the war, this attitude must have resonated with the rank and file as well.

Maximillian Schell dominates the screen every moment he is on it as Hans Rolfe, Jannings’ attorney. Some might question how he defeated Paul Newman for Newman’s iconic role in The Hustler that year; watch Schell work in this film and its not a difficult question even sixty years later. Rolfe makes it very clear in his opening statement that Germany is on trial, and just as the devil can quote scripture for his purpose, he is just as good at using American proverbs. “My country, right or wrong,’ is the statement of an American patriot” he says in his opening statement. “It is no less true of a German patriot.”

These days we mock the idea of the Nuremberg defense as an excuse. But Rolfe makes it clear that it was not necessarily one that you could shrug off: “Should Ernst Janning have carried out the laws of his country? Or should he have refused to carry them out and become a traitor?” It may sound easy to not do horrible things when you know in your heart they are wrong, but if by not doing them you end up in the same place as your victims, is it a simple choice? Lawson thinks it is. Rolfe thinks it isn’t. That nature is at the heart of the trial.

It is worth noting that as the defense begins Rolfe increasingly uses ugly methods. But it’s also worth noting they’re not illegal methods. After a doctor who clearly notes the laws were wrong, Rolfe first tells him of a statement involving sterilization made by Oliver Wendell homes. He then reminds this doctor that at one point he and his fellow doctors had the capacity to do something but they did not. This point actually shocks the doctor and angers Lawson, even though he is within the bounds of law.

Then comes some of the more poignant moments in the films. In order to introduce the policies of sterilizations, Lawson calls a living victim. He is played by Montgomery Clift, in a role that deserved earned him a nomination for Supporting Actor. Clift’s character is frail and broken, but it is also clear he is not particularly bright. When he begins his cross-examination of him, Rolfe gently points out these problems the man has and humiliates him by taking an intelligence test. Rolfe is clearly disgusted by what he has to do but he needs to make a point.

The critical moment involves a woman named Irene Hoffman, who at sixteen was involved in a case involving an elderly Jewish man who was sentenced to a camp by Janning because he was accused of having an affair with her. She is played by Judy Garland. (The screenplay describes her now as: “It’s impossible to believe she really was sixteen.) Garland was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress (like Clift for the fourth time and last time in her career) and we se watching her how frail and broken she is. (By this point Garland was in the midst of the drinking that would end up leading her to an early death.)

Rolfe calls her as a defense witness and while he is battering her on the stand, Janning speaks for the first time in the courtroom. Angered beyond words, he finally as to make a statement. But it is not one in his defense. In what amounts to a fifteen minute monologue, Janning lays out every aspect of German society in the aftermath of World War I. He explains in no uncertain terms why the country accepted Hitler, and why he and his fellow judges — indeed all the Germans who should have known better — did so. He lays bare the lie of Germany not knowing the truth by saying that they claim not to know what was happening because they did not want to know.

This monologue is followed with another brilliant monologue by Rolfe, in which he lays bare just how guilty the rest of the world was in everything that happened. “It is easy to condemn one man in the dock. It is easy to condemn the German people to speak of the basic flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power and at the same time positively ignore the basic flaw in character, that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him (he cites a letter Churchill wrote in 1938) and American industrialist profit by him!” The brilliance of the screenplay is that Kramer not only doesn’t let Germany off the hook for the Holocaust, he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. “Ernst Janning’s guilt is the world’s guilt — no more and no less.” Rolfe concludes. And looking back at history it’s impossible not to think that way.

In retrospect if the film has a flaw, it is the presence of Marlene Dietrich as a German widow who Haywood meets and becomes a potential love interest. I don’t object to Dietrich’s performance it is extremely well mannered and some of her best work. The problem is, she seems to be speaking as a defender of Janning as well as a representative of the good German people. I read in a Billy Wilder biography that Dietrich complained that the message of Kramer’s film was that the Holocaust only happened because of Hitler alone and asked Wilder to rewrite her dialogue so that it expressed her feelings. If he did, it did not help. Many of Dietrich’s lines involves the scornful use of the footage of the Holocaust and she actually blames Hitler and Goebbels for what happened. Thlone for what happened. And it also does a massive discredit to Kramer, if you watch this movie it is very clear that’s the last thing Kramer is doing with this film.

Judgment at Nuremberg is an epic movie unlike almost every other epic I’ve seen in my life. It’s fundamentally claustrophobic; almost the entire film is set indoors. Unlike most epics, it’s entirely shot in black and white. It’s got an all-star cast but all of them spend their time either sitting down or talking, which doesn’t happen in any epic film. And most of the camerawork is not in long shots but closeups of the defendants or those in the dock, many times utterly stoic.

The last lines of Judgment at Nuremberg are among the most famous in film history. At the end of the day, however, I think the most powerful moments in the film come in Tracy’s summation before he announced the verdict. When I saw this movie in the 2000s, not long after we were learning the truth about the War on Terror, Tracy’s words took on a new resonance. Throughout the film Tracy is being pressured to deal with coming up with a legal reason not to sentence the defendants. “When I first became judge, I knew there were certain people in town, I wasn’t supposed to touch…But how in God’s name do you expect me to look the other way at the murder of six million people?” He then tells the judge who says that the men are not responsible for their acts: “You’re going to have to explain it (to me) very carefully.”

Then in his summation while he excuses Janning he says lines that sum up so well the principles a country should stand by.

“This trial has shown that under the stress of a national crisis men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes and atrocities so vast and heinous as to stagger the imagination…There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the protection of the country. Of survival. The answer to that is ‘survival as what? A country isn’t a rock. It’s what its stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world — let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth…and the value of a single human being!”

This speech has as much resonance in 2023 as it did in 1961 and in 1948. It is horrifying looking at America and the world today and see who have fundamentally decided to forget that basic principle, not just in government but in every aspect of our lives.

Eventually Kramer stopped making movies. In the 1970s he made a series of TV Movies that dealt with similar trials, involving the Rosenberg’s, William Calley and General Yamashita, all of whom were accused of war crimes. When he died he had not made a movie since 1979. He may never be considered one of the greatest directors in history and he may not have been. But the films he made dealt with fights and issues that we are still dealing with today and lessons that we just can’t seem to learn. Sometimes you need to send a message in a way that no one can ignore. Judgment at Nuremberg’s message is one we need to keep hearing.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.