How much should one person be held responsible for the acts of evil of an entire country? If a man willingly plays his part in condemning innocents for idealistic reasons does he have to suffer for his ideals because someone else takes those ideals and pushes them to the extreme? Judgement at Nuremberg explores these questions through the drama of a trial for influential Nazi judges.
Based on several trials that took place at Nuremberg after the war, Judgement on surface could be seen as morally black and white as the cinematography is. However, through the eyes of a retired judge from Maine, the morals shift as he gets to know Germany as a country. He befriends a widow of Nazi General and sees through her how ideals can blind and corrupt. He understands the need to be seen as a good person no matter what happens can blind people to the horrible events that surround them. Through the defense lawyer, he sees how love of country can supersede even truth. Through the prosecuting lawyer, he can see the pursuit of something so blindly can just as corrupting even if you are on the side of the “right.” No one is safe from being human, even him. He wants so badly for the main judge, played by Burt Lancaster, to be innocent that it comes a shock when he gets on the stand to confess his guilt, his overt and implied guilt of everything that happened. At the moment this Nazi judge seemed to be the only truthful, naive person in that courtroom. That of course is crushed by the end.
If one thing is said about Judgement at Nuremberg these many years later, it is the performances. Casting Marlene Dietrich in a role that was abhorrent to her in real life, but seems to embody so thoroughly when that camera turns on is genius. Montgomery Clift cast as a mentally disturbed castrated man, Judy Garland as a plump young woman who gets thrown into a dirty jewish trial, Burt Lancaster as the main Nazi judge who authorized everything his underlings did with indulgence, Maxmillian Schell as the defense lawyer charged with saving a whole country’s reputation, and Richard Widmark as fundamental prosecuting lawyer who wants every foe defeated for his ego only. All of these actors are extraordinary and get their chance to shine in this over three-hour film. It is quite remarkable how Kramer and Mann gave all of these actors and actresses such well-rounded and fleshed out characters.
Without a doubt this film has its problems that I can see very clearly forty years after it was made. This film would have been made very different if it was first produced today (reliance on American actors and the fuzziness of certain facts can be troubling if picking this film a part) but it wasn’t so it must be seen as a product of the American studio system who saw people like Spencer Tracy, unwilling to divorce his wife for Katherine Hepburn although it was perfectly okay to continue a lifelong affair with her, as morally pure is something that you have to forgive or else you will not get through this film. But I think if are willing to forgive minor quibbles, you will think this is an effective film full of great dialogue, speeches, and character sketches.