Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 168: Judgment at Nuremberg

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #182
Year: 1961
Director: Stanley Kramer
Starring: Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster

Judgment at Nuremberg covers such a sensitive subject that there's hundreds of wrong ways to tell the story and only a few right ones. Even with creeping Cold War paranoia playing a huge role in the plot and a still fresh memory of World War II making it incredibly easy to indict all Germans as what Inglourious Basterds' Lt. Aldo Raine would call "foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass-murderin' maniac," Stanley Kramer managed to present the infamous Nuremberg trials in a fair, responsible light in his 1961 masterpiece. With an ensemble cast headlined by Spencer Tracy and rounded out by a young William Shatner and a much less young Judy Garland, the film addresses the issues of condemning an entire people for the actions of their leaders and the wisdom of placing diplomacy above justice. To do this, it examines the trial of four German judges whose rulings during Nazi show trials allegedly led to acts of genocide. It proceeds much as your average courtroom drama – albeit with a 3+ hour running time – but the stakes are so much higher. This isn't one murder that the defendants are implicit in; it's millions.

Aside from the brief appearances by Shatner and Garland, the thing that has made Judgment at Nuremberg a continued source of discussion so many years after its release is its use of actual archive footage from the liberation of Nazi death camps, which are entered as evidence in the film's trial. The images are disturbing, much more so than those found in your average horror movie – piles of human bodies, furnaces with charred skulls inside, and more horrors await on the newsreels shown in the courtroom. They're used as an emotional appeal to the film's tribunal, and it's easy to see why; if any of us had to see those images and stand mere feet from the men who allegedly allowed them to happen, our first instinct would be to hang 'em high. Foreign policy is at stake, though, and there's continual admonishments that if you jail the Nazis, then the Bolsheviks will jail you.

The film's extreme running time sadly takes some of the power from what should be one of its most powerful scenes. As the trial comes to a close, the tribunal finds all of the judges guilty and sentences all of them to life in prison. It's only after Spencer Tracy's character speaks with one of them that the tables finally turn, and a closing title card reveals that at the time of filming, none of the judges were still in jail. It's a difficult thing, dealing with wartime leaders in peacetime, but the victors of World War II seemed to make the right choice at least on this. But Tracy's final encounter with Burt Lancaster is only moving if you're still awake. Pacing was not this film's strong suit. Still, it took a sensitive topic and addressed it with care. It could use some fat-trimming, but its intentions are very good and the resulting film is great when it's great and never strays into being bad, just sometimes a bit long in the tooth. Like this blog post is in danger of becoming. Good night, dear readers.

The Good: I'm tempted to say the footage from the death camps, but that sounds morbid. Still, it's used very effectively, and let's face it, that was bold as hell.

The Bad: Judy Garland is pretty bad in her one scene. When she overacts Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we assume that's how it was always supposed to be. Here it throws off the tone of the film.

The Skinny: If one court movie besides 12 Angry Men should be on the list, it should be this one. That being said, I don't particularly love court movies, so I don't see myself revisiting it.

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