With a running time of three hours this courtroom drama almost feels like a trial itself but don’t let that put you off: JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG is as gripping as it is harrowing, depicting a fictionalized version of the Nürnberg Judges’ Trial in 1947. Maximilian Schell won a ‘Best Actor’ award for his intense portrayal of defence attorney Hans Rolfe while screenwriter Abby Mann won another Academy Award in the ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ category.

While the actual trials took place in 1947 the action here is set in 1948. The original trial focused on sixteen judges and prosecutors standing trial for crimes against humanity under the Nazi regime, in the film the number of the accused is four. The hearing relates to the enforcement and carrying out of laws under the Nazi regime such as sexual sterilization of the physically handicapped and mentally defective, and of course the gradual extermination of ethnic identities – foremost the Jewish people.
US Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), assisted by Captain Harrison Byers (a young William Shatner), Judge Curtiss Ives (Ray Teal), Judge Kenneth Norris (Kenneth MacKenna) hear out the individual cases involving the defendants Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), Werner Lampe (Torben Meyer) and Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt) while German defence counsel Hans Rolfe (M. Schell) argues that the defendants are not solely to blame for the atrocities committed during the Nazi regime but that the German people equally turned a blind eye. He further argues that the USA are just as much to blame in the case of forced sterilisations, as exemplified through US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s support for the first eugenics practices, Joseph Stalin’s part in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact which removed the last obstacle to Germany’s invasion of Poland (thus starting WW2) and so on. In contrast, prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) would like nothing more than see the four defendants executed.

It’s up to Judge Haywood in particular to weigh up the pros and cons of the accusations. On the one hand he struggles to understand how a man as intelligent as Ernst Janning could have been responsible for sending so many people to their deaths while he also tries to understand the other side of the coin, mainly whether the German people really did turn a blind eye or whether the majority were simply unaware of the horrors going on in the Fatherland. To find out more he befriends a German couple who are his butler and housekeeper in the Nuremberg residence he stays at during the trial: Frau Halbestadt (Virginia Christine) and Herr Halbestadt (Ben Wright). While the former explains that, “Hitler did some good things such as pulling Germany out of its economic depression” she continues that “I simply could not understand the other horrible things he apparently did”. Herr Halbestadt adds: “Even if we had known the full truth of what was going on in Germany at the time, what could we have done about it?” – meaning that German citizens weren’t actually allowed to be conscientiously objective or they would have been shot. During the war the Halbestadts were the housekeeper for wealthy widow Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich) whose husband, a General, was executed by the Allies. Nonetheless Haywood strikes up a friendship of sorts with the widow who organizes a complimentary ticket to a classical concert for him, with the words, “I would like to prove to you that not all German people are monsters”… delivered in a manner only Dietrich could have delivered it.

During the hearing in the courtroom, various witnesses appear – among them feeble-minded Rudolph Peterson (Montgomery Clift) who was forced to have sexual sterilisation as he did not fit the image of the flawless Aryan. Clift’s performance might not exceed ten minutes but is one of the most memorable in the film. Meanwhile, Colonel Lawson travels to Berlin where he has tracked down Irene Hoffman-Wallner (Judy Garland) and manages to convince her to appear as a witness in the so-called ‘Feldenstein case’ (Katzenberger Trial in real life) in which an elderly Jewish man was sentenced to death for apparently having sexual relations with Irene (then sixteen-years old). Cue for another showdown in the courtroom during which Irene is grilled by defence attorney Rolfe, who tries to convince Judge and jury that Irene did have a relationship with the elderly Herr Feldenstein while Irene insists he was merely her landlord and a very close friend who became almost a father-figure after her own father had died. Rolfe has arranged for a special witness, former cleaning woman of the Hoffman residence Elsa Lindlow (Olga Fabian), to testify that she spotted Feldenstein at numerous occasions in the company of Irene (on one occasion she sat on his lap) while Colonel Lawson finally dismantles her statements by proving that at the time, Frau Lindlow was a member of the Nazi Party and therefore biased against Feldenstein – a Jew.

As the trial draws to its conclusion, Burt Lancaster finally gets his chance to speak and he makes full use of it (until then he merely uttered the odd sentence) and to everyone’s surprise admits that he is guilty as charged for everything he’s accused of – in contrast to the other defendants who stand by their deeds. Judge Haywood sentences the four defendants to life imprisonment although a little later, in conversation with Judge Haywood, defence counsel Rolfe smirks, “In five years time they’ll all be free” – hinting at the speedily advancing Cold War situation.
The film also uses stock footage of a bombed-out Nuremberg and Berlin while harrowing footage of Nazi concentration camps further emphasises the horror the accused were being prosecuted for.

Once again, director Stanley Kramer and favoured actor Spencer Tracy do justice to an exceptionally worthwhile film. Plaudits also to cinematographer Ernest Laszlo for his telling photography!
To coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (nominated for 11 Oscars) is presented newly restored as a 2-Disc set with various Special Features including info booklet.