Sunday, December 1, 2013

1961 - Judgement at Nuremberg

With our Australian visit behind us, Kat and I are now relaxing in Los Angeles for a few days before heading back to New York. Almost immediately after arriving back in the States, America's penchant for large food portions became obvious. That's what you get for eating at The Cheesecake Factory, I guess.

And now, the final movie to review from 1961's Best Picture race...

Judgment at Nuremberg
Stanley Kramer
Abby Mann
Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, Werner Klemperer
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actor (Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay

Soon after the end of World War II, a down-to-earth judge from Maine, Dan Haywood (Tracy), arrives in Germany to fill his post as the chief judge in a military tribunal. Accused of crimes against humanity, the defendants are four German judges, including the internationally renowned Ernst Janning (Lancaster). The jurists are all represented by German attorney Hans Rolfe (Schell), while leading the prosecution is Colonel Tad Lawson (Widmark). Along with the testimony in court, Haywood converses with Germans outside of the courtroom, including Frau Bertholt (Dietrich), the widow of a German general, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how such blatant atrocities could have occurred in a seemingly civilized country.

This one's definitely a courtroom drama, folks. It's over three hours long and most of that takes place inside the courtroom. Director Stanley Kramer keeps things from getting dull, however, with some creative camera tricks, including sudden zooms and long circular pans. But even if these gimmicks were absent, the subject matter alone is certainly enough to keep you invested. It's deep and often unsettling stuff, particularly when the prosecution shows disturbing real-life footage from the concentration camps.

It may sound odd to liken this film to fellow nominee The Guns of Navarone, but despite the lack of action sequences in Judgment at Nuremberg, both films wax philosophical about sensitive moral issues. In this case, the focus is drawn towards how much responsibility should be held by those who enforce immoral laws. Were the defendants at the centre of the story justified in carrying out their government's orders to save their own skin? Or should they be considered complicit in all that followed? That theme is further explored by asking questions of ordinary civilians. Were average Germans aware of the atrocities their government was committing? And if so, how should they have dealt with that information?

Representing the two sides of this debate are the prosecution and defense lawyers in the trial. It may just have been due to the respective actors' performances, but during the opening statements, I felt as though the film was guiding my moral pendulum towards the defense. Richard Widmark's portrayal of prosecuting attorney Colonel Lawson struck me as unreasonable and self-righteous, whereas Maximilian Schell's defense attorney Hans Rolfe takes the persona of the sincere underdog. My sympathies didn't remain there for long, however, since Rolfe almost immediately becomes a little smarmy. Nonetheless, Lawson's brattishness prevented me from ever fully siding with him either. The posturing from both sides makes things slightly muddy, but the final act leaves no doubt as to which conclusion the film makers would like us to draw. It's most likely the right conclusion to draw, of course, but it is hindered somewhat by Widmark being overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Schell's passionate and ultimately Oscar-winning performance.

Along with the two lawyers, Judgment at Nuremberg boasts a star-studded cast. As the judge at the head of it all, the always calm and amiable Spencer Tracy represents the audience, trying to make sense of everything he hears. He is supported by strong performances from Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and particularly Judy Garland, who delivers an incredibly heartbreaking turn on the witness stand. Also look out for two soon-to-be television stars. That's Star Trek's William Shatner (pictured, with Tracy) as Judge Haywood's charming aide Captain Byers, and despite Werner Klemperer's steely portrayal of defendant Emil Hahn, I couldn't help imagining him as Colonel Klink bellowing, "Ho-o-ogan!"

1 comment:

  1. Last year, I read a lengthy biography of Spencer Tracy, and supplementing it, I watched a number of his films; one of which was Judgment at Nuremberg. It was one of those movies that I saw segments of over the years, but now watched in its entirety. In the mid-eighties, I met the screenwriter, Abby Mann, when he was writing a screenplay for The Atlanta Child Murders. He was rightfully proud of his work on Judgment at Nuremberg, for which he won an Academy Award.

    The movie itself is a powerful, if a little overlong, courtroom drama with a very distinguished cast. Maximillian Shell , who gives a passionate, if occasionally blustery performance still holds the distinction of being the lowest billed performer (fifth) to win a lead acting Academy Award. While the film moves at a slow pace, it covers the issues with depth and has teeth. The breath of emotions from the characters covers all bases, from vengeful to shrewd, to fair-minded to tragic. This is probably Stanley Kramer’s finest work among his many socially conscious films.

    On this year's awards topic, it was refreshing to see the disparity of selections between the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, with the alleged front-runners very slow out of the gate. I expect it to change with the more mainstream groups, but for now I like what's happening.