The year is 1948 and in Germany, the fallout from the Second World War still hangs heavily over the nation, and indeed the planet. In trying to work out what to do with those who were responsible for the Nazis causing the Hell on Earth that they did, the Allies have been conducting trials of former Nazis to bring them to account, not that the German nation, now split between East and West, are sympathetic to their horrendous judgement being examined under the microscope of United States justice. One of the judges is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who has arrived in the city to oversee the trials of four German judges who either allowed or ordered the deaths of countless innocents...
Certain films are monoliths in their construction and effect, demanding you take them seriously with the utmost gravity, and producer/director Stanley Kramer was no stranger to those, Judgment at Nuremberg being probably the most monolithic of all as it dealt with the most poisonous of humanity's evil and required the audience to wrestle with some of the biggest questions of morality ever faced in a motion picture. For some, this was a wholly necessary examination of the motives of the worst conflict the globe had ever witnessed, certainly screenwriter Abby Mann, adapting his previously produced television play was adamant in that belief, and its sincerity was not in doubt.
At three hours, it stuck with the common conception of "important" movies: a very long running time, and as this was mostly played out in one set, essentially making it the most significant courtroom drama of all time, it was a big ask to get audiences to sit through the entire thing. Aware of this, Kramer decided to cast a star in every one of the main roles - this was an ensemble piece at its heart - so behind Tracy the likes of Burt Lancaster (on trial), Richard Widmark (prosecuting) and Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift (damaged witnesses) were lining up to make an impact too. That said, the real success story in the cast was Maximilian Schell, playing the defence, who strolled away with a Best Actor Oscar for his strenuous efforts in a difficult role.
It was a very fine performance, if a shade histrionic at times as the character starts yelling to make his points, but some have seen the award as a sop to the international market from Hollywood who were keen to make inroads into foreign territories, not to mention a gesture of support to Germany who would once again have to suffer their sins being paraded on the world stage as the film became a talking point wherever it was released. Nevertheless, Kramer had bigger things on his mind that awards, it was those talking points he was after, generating a dialogue in a manner he felt cinema had a duty to do; a well-known liberal with a crusading streak, he tends to be belittled in retrospect for wearing his heart on his sleeve, and maybe worse than that, having no real style in how he presented his projects.
But would you want to see a version of the Nuremberg Trials, albeit a fictionalised one as was the case here, all dressed up with bells and whistles? Sometimes less is more, and Kramer's sober, searching way of allowing the script to speak for itself was by no means a poor choice, even if at this length it was relentless in its approach. Yet you would get the idea: there are no easy answers as to how a nation of millions of people can bring about an enormity like the Holocaust, though that does not mean the investigation should not go ahead, for that betrays the millions of dead who may as well have perished for nothing. Marlene Dietrich essayed the role of a war widow Haywood becomes acquainted with, altering the conversation from "How much did the German citizens know?" to a decision that the past should be forgotten if we are to move on. Haywood eventually rejects that out of hand, concluding the opposite: if we are to move on, we should remember as much as possible. If it never abandoned its television origins as a film, its earnest intelligence was admirable. Music by Ernest Gold.
[There are masses of extras on the Limited Edition 2-disc set (1 x Blu-ray + 1 x DVD for extras) from the BFI:
Newly recorded audio commentary by film historian Jim Hemphill
The Guardian Interview: Maximilian Schell (1971, 86 mins, audio only): the actor in conversation with critic Deac Rossell
In Conversation with Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell (2004, 20 mins): the actor and writer reminisce about Stanley Kramer and working on the film
The Value of a Single Human Being (2004, 6 mins): screenwriter Abby Mann discusses his Oscar-winning screenplay
A Tribute to Stanley Kramer (2004, 16 mins): a celebration of Stanley Kramer's life and career, featuring interviews with screenwriter Abby Mann and Karen Sharpe, Kramer's widow
Resistance (2008, 13 mins): the story of a group of defectives and their lives within the walls of an institution as part of the Nazi's Aktion-T4 a programme of mass murder through involuntary euthanasia
Heredity in Man (1937, 14 mins): a chilling insight into pre-Holocaust eugenics
These Are the Men (1943, 11 mins): Ministry of Information propaganda short featuring narration written by poet Dylan Thomas
Man One Family (1946, 16 mins): a propaganda short made for the Ministry of Information by Ivor Montagu at Ealing Studios
Berlin Airlift The Story of a Great Achievement (1949, 10 mins)
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet featuring reminisces of the film by actor William Shatner, new writing on the film and director Stanley Kramer by Jennifer Frost and full film credits.]