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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > World War II > Judgment At Nuremberg (1961/MGM DVD)

Judgment At Nuremberg (1961/MGM DVD)

Picture: B- Sound: B- Extras: C Film: A-

PLEASE NOTE: This film has been issued (ten years after this DVD release) in a limited edition Blu-ray edition with more extras and you can see more about it at this link:


It is often repeated that politics makes strange bedfellows. Never was such an adage truer than American foreign policy during the Cold War. In the name of national security, the United States occasionally sided with nefarious dictators, ignored gross human rights abuses, and forgave past digressions. These decisions were not without complex debates over the limits of national security and the protection of individual liberties. However, these discussions are not restricted to the annals of history. In the post-September 11 era, politicians and pundits tussle over the ethical implications of racial profiling, invasive surveillance and harsh prisoner treatment as avenues for securing the nation. Like many films that deliberate over contemporary anxieties, Stanley Kramer's 1961 masterpiece, Judgment at Nuremberg, is as poignant today as it was when originally released. Nominated for eleven Academy awards, and winner of two, Judgment at Nuremberg stands as one of the most compelling and unapologetic ruminations on the complexity of moral culpability.

The film opens with a dramatic explosion of a swastika, announcing the destruction of the Nazi government. However, the residue of such a regime is not as easy to eradicate, especially when Germany is critical to defending Europe against the Soviet Empire. The strategic importance of Germany led to a number of political decisions not to embarrass the Germans. This highlights the central tension developed in the film. Graced by an all-star cast (including an unusually restrained William Shatner), Judgment at Nuremberg follows American judge Dan Haywood (deftly played by a tormented Spencer Tracy) as he presides, along with two other jurists, over a Nuremberg trial of four judges (including the eerily stoic Burt Lancaster) accused of 'Legalizing' Nazi war crimes. Uncertain why he is chosen to preside over this trial, Tracy typifies the reluctant yet morally sagacious American. Haywood, who is staying at the home of a now deceased Nazi army officer, rebuffs the hierarchical traditions of aristocratic Germany, for he is uncomfortable with chauffeurs and maids, who try to address his every need. Interested in exploring why these guardians of justice were so seduced by Nazism and did not defend individual liberties, Haywood reads the past decisions and the political works of Dr. Ernst Janning (Lancaster), who wrote landmark democratic treatises for the Weimar Republic.

Unlike many other courtroom dramas, a majority of the film takes place in the courtroom, which enables greater development of the arguments than simply the narrative. However, even the subplots within the narrative serve to nuance the larger argument. The moral uncompromising prosecuting attorney, Tad Lawson (played by a passionate Richard Widmark) has tried numerous other Nuremberg cases, and is on a crusade to punish every Nazi war criminal to the fullest extend of the law. He uses every opportunity to display horrific footage of the Holocaust (which is extremely graphic and powerful), including calling himself up to stand to testify. However, disenfranchised with humanity for allowing such deplorable acts and the inconsistency of punishing those responsible, Lawson often turns to the bottle. The defense attorney, Hans Rolfe (a rhetorically savvy Maximilian Schell), wishing to defend and impress his legal idols, advances an ardent rejoinder that focuses on their juridical impotence within such oppressive conditions. Moreover, given such circumstances and claiming that they were unaware of such atrocities, such men should not be found guilty, because that only indicts the entire German population.

His befriending of a Nazi officer widow, Madame Bertholt (brought to life by the incomparable Marlene Dietrich), complicates Haywood's job, the former owner of the house he now lives in. Bertholt contends that she, like the rest of the German people did not know of these war crimes (Haywood's common sensical retort is that six million people do not just go missing and nobody notices). As a result, she and other American operatives argue that it is important not to punish, or even embarrass, all of Germany (an argument that did carry some weight at the time because the result of previous national embarrassment led to the rise of Hitler).

Haywood's decision is troubled by the added pressure of American politicos who implore Haywood to not punish these prestigious German figures too harshly, despite the testimony of Dr. Janning, who breaks company with the defense and admits to wrongdoing and their responsibility in Germany's gross miscarriage of justice. The resolution, however, speaks to the difficulty of determining moral culpability in a world governed by real politick.

All told, the film, just over three hours long (which might be a bit too long), is buoyed by an excellent cast delivering wonderful pieces of oratory. Unlike other courtroom dramas that rest on clever (or not so clever) plot twists or evidentiary discoveries, Judgment at Nuremberg is a rather clear-cut case where the only real tension resides in the characters' response such arguments.

This special edition DVD from MGM boasts a rather solid transfer (letterboxed, not anamorphic) and the sound quality is fair (5.1 surround and the original mono), given the age of the film (MGM usually does an all right job with the older films). However, the special edition is not too special, given the historical importance of the film. In addition to a theatrical trailer and photo gallery, the disc includes a rather interesting conversation between Abby Mann (screenwriter) and Maximilian Schell, a tribute to Stanley Kramer and an Abby Mann narrated piece for the book. All features provide some depth to the film, but I think commentary by a World War II or legal scholar, in addition to a film historian would be a wonderful addition to such a film (since pretty much everyone who work on the film has passed on to the giant courtroom in the sky). Given the reasonable price and improbability of a newer version ever coming out, this would be a solid addition to any DVD collection.

- Ron Von Burg


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