Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 American drama film dealing with the Holocaust, with non-combatant war crimes against a civilian population (i.e., crimes committed in violation of the Law of Nations or the Laws of War), and with the post-World War II geo-political complexity of the Nuremberg Trials. The picture was written by Abby Mann and directed by Stanley Kramer, and stars Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift. An earlier version of the story was broadcast as a television episode of Playhouse 90. Schell and Klemperer played the same roles in this version as well.
Although touching on (in newsreel footage) and discussing the war time (1939 – 1945) persecution and genocide of European Jews, the film’s events relate principally to actions committed by the German state against its own racial, social, religious, and eugenic groupings within its borders “…in the name of the law…”, (to quote from the prosecution’s opening statement in the film) that began with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The plot development and thematic treatment question the legitimacy of the social, political and alleged legal foundations of these actions.
The trial depicted in the film was part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials (formally the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals), a series of twelve U.S. military tribunals, held after World War II from 1946 to 1949 in the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg, that tried surviving members of the military, political, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany for war crimes following the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT).
The film focuses on the trial of certain judges who served before and during the Nazi regime in Germany, and who either passively, actively, or in a combination of both, embraced and enforced laws that led to judicial acts of sexual sterilization and to the imprisonment and execution of people for their religions, racial or ethnic identities, political beliefs and physical handicaps or disabilities.
The film was inspired by the Judges’ Trial before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in 1947, which resulted in four of the defendants being sentenced to life in prison. A key thread in the film’s plot involves a “race defilement” trial known as the “Feldenstein case.” In this fictionalized case, based on the real life Katzenberger Trial, an elderly non-“Aryan” Jewish man was tried for having a “relationship” (sexual acts) with an Aryan (German) woman, an act that had been legally defined as a “crime” under the Nuremberg Laws, which had been enacted by the German Reichstag. Under these laws the man was found guilty and was put to death in 1935. Using this and other examples, the movie explores individual conscience, responsibility in the face of unjust laws, and behavior during a time of widespread societal immorality.
Judgment at Nuremberg centers on a military tribunal convened in Nuremberg, Germany, in which four German judges and prosecutors stand accused of crimes against humanity for their involvement in atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is the Chief Trial Judge of a three-judge panel that will hear and decide the case against the defendants. Haywood begins his examination by trying to learn how the defendant Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) could have sentenced so many people to death. Janning, it is revealed, is a well-educated and internationally respected jurist and legal scholar. Haywood seeks to understand how the German people could have turned blind eyes and deaf ears to the crimes of the Nazi regime. In doing so, he befriends the widow (Marlene Dietrich) of a German general who had been executed by the Allies. He talks with a number of Germans who have different perspectives on the war. Other characters the judge meets are U.S. Army Captain Byers (William Shatner), who is assigned to the American party hearing the cases, and Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), who is afraid to bring testimony that may bolster the prosecution’s case against the judges.
The film examines questions of individual complicity in immoral actions sought by the government that the individual served. German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) raises points like the Versailles Treaty in 1919 that blamed Germany for starting World War I and its resulting punishments that left Germany economically impovershed and backward until Hitler’s takeover, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s support for the first eugenics practices (see Buck v. Bell ); the German-Vatican Reichskonkordat of 1933, which the Nazi-dominated German government exploited as an implicit foreign recognition of Nazi leadership; Stalin’s part in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which removed the last major obstacle standing in the way of Germany’s invasion and occupation of western Poland, initiating World War II and the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final stage of the war in August 1945.
The film is notable for its use of courtroom drama to illuminate individual perfidy and moral compromise in times of violent political upheaval; it was one of the first films not to shy from showing actual footage filmed by American and British soldiers after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Shown in court by prosecuting attorney Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), the scenes of huge piles of naked corpses laid out in rows and bulldozed into large pits were considered exceptionally graphic for a mainstream film of its day.
Haywood must weigh considerations of geopolitical expediency and ideals of justice. He rejects a call to let the German judges off lightly so as to gain German support in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. All four defendants are found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Haywood visits Janning in his cell. Janning affirms that Haywood’s decision was just, but asks him to believe that he and the other defendant judges never desired the mass murder of innocents. Judge Haywood replies, “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” Haywood departs; a title card informs the audience that, of 99 Nuremberg defendants sentenced to prison terms, none are still serving their sentences.
Judgment at Nuremberg provided key early roles for two actors who would later become prominent in TV and film during the 1960s: Werner Klemperer as Emil Hahn, one of the judges on trial, and William Shatner as Captain Byers. There is also a brief but significant role for Howard Caine as Irene Wallner’s husband. Klemperer was a real refugee from Nazi Germany who emigrated to the US permanently after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A Jewish refugee, he served in the US Air Force during World War II and subsequently obtained stage and TV roles, the most famous was of the goofy Col. Klink on the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. He allegedly refused to portray a Nazi unless he was assured the character would be a buffoon or a complete scoundrel. The son of renowned composer-conductor Otto Klemperer, he was an accomplished violinist and later found fame as a narrator with many renowned orchestras. Caine also went on to find fame by his appearances as the villainous Maj. Hochstetter in Hogan’s Heroes, as well as on the stage on Broadway and elsewhere. Shatner went on to appear in other films, and on TV series such as The Twilight Zone before achieving fame as Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series.
The movie was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Maximilian Schell won the award for Best Actor, and Abby Mann won in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Mann’s win was in the only category for which West Side Story was nominated but did not win. The remaining nominations were for Best Picture, Stanley Kramer for Best Director, Spencer Tracy for Best Actor, Montgomery Clift for Best Supporting Actor, Judy Garland for Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction, Black-and-White, Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, and Best Film Editing. Stanley Kramer was given the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. This is one of the few times that a film had multiple entries in the same category (Tracy and Schell for Best Actor) and Schell was the first Best Actor winner to be billed fifth. Many of the big name actors who appeared in the film did so for a fraction of their usual salaries because they believed in the social importance of the project.
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its “Ten Top Ten” after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Judgment at Nuremberg was acknowledged as the tenth best film in the courtroom drama genre. Additionally, the film had been nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.
In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In 2001, a stage adaptation of the film was produced for Broadway, starring Schell (this time in the role of Ernst Janning) and George Grizzard, with John Tillinger as director.
Spencer Tracy as Chief Judge Dan Haywood
Burt Lancaster as Dr. Ernst Janning
Richard Widmark as Col. Tad Lawson
Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe
Werner Klemperer as Emil Hahn
Marlene Dietrich as Frau Bertholt
Montgomery Clift as Rudolph Peterson
Judy Garland as Irene Wallner
Howard Caine as Irene’s husband, Hugo Wallner
William Shatner as Capt. Harrison Byers
John Wengraf as His Honour Herr Justizrat. Dr. Karl Wieck – former Minister of Justice in Weimar Germany
Karl Swenson as Dr. Heinrich Geuter – Feldenstein’s lawyer
Ben Wright as Herr Halbestadt, Haywood’s butler
Ed Binns as Sen. Burkette
Torben Meyer as Werner Lampe
Martin Brandt as Friedrich Hofstetter
Kenneth MacKenna as Judge Kenneth Norris
Alan Baxter as Brig. Gen. Matt Merrin
Ray Teal as Judge Curtiss Ives
Virginia Christine as Mrs. Halbestadt – Haywood’s Housekeeper
Joseph Bernard as Major Abe Radnitz – Lawson’s assistant
Olga Fabian as Mrs. Elsa Lindnow – witness in Feldenstein case
The film grossed USD$6 million and recorded a loss of $1.5 million. Kramer’s second trial film received positive reviews and was liked as a straight reconstruction of the famous trials of Nazi war criminals. The cast was especially praised, including Tracy, Lancaster, Schell, and Garland. The film’s release was perfectly timed as its subject coincided with the then trial and conviction in Israel of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.