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Reflections on "Judgment at Nuremberg"




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Welcome to my page of thoughts about director Stanley Kramer and writer Abby Mann's powerful film starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell and Marlene Dietrich. This is a drama based on fact which is possibly just as relevant today as when it was first released in 1961, given contemporary disputes over international incursions and the horrific fact that in a recent survey it was discovered that some 60% of British youth (or 60% of those interviewed) had never heard of Auschwitz.

This is fundamentally a courtroom drama which does not follow the common cinematic practice of depending on character development in order to build or maintain interest. Here the characters are revealed rather than developed. They are not the principal interest of the film, but their stories and reactions are used to develop the true interest and purpose of the film - a debate to discuss where guilt lies for the growth of Nazi Germany, and how political and legal measures were allowed to develop into brutality and atrocity on a massive scale.

This debate, then, is the subject of the film and it is not sidetracked by "entertainment". We are gripped by tales of human tragedy, told with sincerity and dignity, as various characters give their accounts of suffering or recount their experiences as evidence in the trial.

There are no cinematic "tricks" to maintain audience interest. Beautifully structured by Abby Mann, the natural drama of the courtroom and its proceedings are allowed to unfold and speak for themselves.

There are breaks in the proceedings, as we follow Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy)'s experiences in trying to get to know and understand the German people and all they have been through.

There are also occasional scenes between other characters, though their purpose is not really to develop character or even to add a little levity - these scenes shed further light on the debate itself, through the actions and reactions of the characters.

In a way, to have dramatised the tale (even further) would only have been to cheapen it. To have developed characters and a subplot would only have been to diminish the power and sincerity of the genuine drama which unfolds in court. The true source of drama, then, is in the accounts of the genuine events (or fictionalised versions of true events).

This is not to suggest that masterly dramatic devices are not used to engage the interest and emotions of the audience.

The argument runs that it was the judges' duty to uphold the laws of the land, and not to question, doubt or otherwise attempt to subvert them, but simply to enforce their application. In defending his clients (four judges accused of crimes against humanity), Herr Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) demonstrates the questioning techniques and the processes applied by the accused. This heightens emotion and provokes reaction and sympathy from the audience as it gives us a taste of what those offering testimony must have gone through. Interestingly, these techniques are largely allowed by the presiding judges.

The laws which allowed thousands to be deprived of basic human rights to the point of torture and murder are explained with "reasoned" argument. Injustice based on racism and bigotry became enshrined in a legal system in order to promote renewed national confidence, strength and patriotism. That this was achieved by means of scapegoats and a system of law which was devoid of compassion and sympathy for fellow human beings appears to have been considered an acceptable price (for others) to pay.

One of the conclusions reached at the end of the film is that jurists should aim at justice and fairness in the construction and application of laws. Laws should not be created to promote a particular group or culture at the expense of others, nor can the fact that such purposes are enshrined in law mean that they can be considered just or right.

This conclusion surely holds implications for us all. Should legal systems be considered above common humanity? How do we decide what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Do we have the right to act if we are to break existing legal strictures? Do we have the right not to act if basic human rights are being infringed by means of biased or unjust laws (or which are perceived as such)?

As Ernst Janning (Lancaster) suggests toward the end of the film, people are judged not just by their actions, but also by their inaction. He suggests that some in his position did know what was happening, but they chose to turn a blind eye to such events. He also states that we can only improve if truth is faced. Within the context of the rise of Nazi Germany it is suggested that guilt by inaction applies equally to numerous other parties and nations who knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it and may even have profited by it.

The film does not shrink from raising other issues as well.

In condemning the four judges, the German people at large are also condemned by implication, yet we meet a number of sincere, principled and patriotic Germans who deny all knowledge of atrocities.

Shortly after viewing film of concentration camps just after their liberation, Judge Haywood meets Madam Berthold (Dietrich), (whose husband, General Berthold was executed following previous court proceedings) in a bar filled with locals who are making merry and who seem to be enjoying life. Madam Berthold assures Haywood that neither she nor her husband knew anything of the camps, nor, indeed, did many German people. Haywood points out that according to accounts he has heard, no-one knew of their existence. The footage from the camps is in direct contrast with the jolly atmosphere in the pub, while Madam Berthold urges Haywood to allow the German nation to forget the past and look forward.

Haywood is also put under political pressure toward the same end as the Cold War was developing and the German people were to be encouraged to play an important part in defending Europe against Communist threat.

On top of this, the tribunal faces issues concerning the very authority of the court, the apparent injustice of choosing to prosecute these four individuals among so many others, along with the general denial of knowledge of the scale of events. Yet Haywood delivers the judgment already mentioned.


Perhaps because although (as Madam Berthold suggested) there is a need to move on, there is also a need to learn from the past and as Ernst Janning said, we can only go forward if we face the truth. Merely moving on for the sake of political expediency would be to deny the injustices done, and would not allow lessons to be learned.

This is a quite stunning and courageous film, standing for principle and justice in the face of political and legal expediency. It stands as a reminder of what politics and law should aim for, but also how easily one can lose sight of these ideals and allow these frameworks to be subverted.

It may not be "entertaining", but it is a gripping and profoundly thought provoking study which I thoroughly recommend, and not just to students of law!


My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie


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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", �The Prisoner� (1967 TV series), �Inherit the Wind� (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.