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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Apr 19, 2021



‘JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG’ is one of the best films of 1961, the year we graduated from high school. 

It’s about the trial of four German judges who sentenced a lot of innocent people to death during the Nazi regime. A military tribunal was set up to try them for their crimes against humanity. 

It got a total of eleven Oscar nominations but was trounced by the Bernstein-Sondheim musical “West Side Story”, that won most of the awards. 

Set in Nuremberg, Germany in 1948, the lead defendant in the trial is Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and his defense attorney is Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell, who won the Oscar best actor award for his performance.) 

The film is directed by Stanley Kramer, who has made many cause-oriented films like “Inherit the Wind”, “On the Beach”, “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. 

The opening scene showing the devastation and ruins on the bombed out city sets the tone for the bleak film that runs for nearly three hours.

The judge in charge of trying the Nazis accused of crimes during Hitler’s regime is the elderly Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy, also nominated as Oscar best actor) who wants to know how Janning and the other judges willingly sentenced innocent people to death and how the German people could have turned a blind eye to the crimes of the Nazis. 

While trying the case, Judge Haywood becomes the friend of a widow (Marlene Dietrich) of a German general who was executed by Allied Forces who owns the house where he now stays. 

He also gets to talk with other Germans to learn their own views about the war. He also meets Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland, nominated as Oscar best supporting actress in a non-singing role but lost to Rita Moreno who’s flashy performance as Anita in “West Side Story” is hard to resist.)

In his testimony, Janning says that well meaning people like himself went along with Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies because of their sense of patriotism, even if they knew his racist stance was wrong. 

The other three defendants have each their own reason. One actually believes in Nazi policies. Another was just following orders. The last one was just scared. 

They’re all eventually found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Later on, Judge Haywood visits Janning in jail, who tells him: “Your verdict was just.” 

But he adds that when it comes to the mass killing of innocent Jews, “I never knew that it would come to that”. 

There were 12 such trials held in post-war Germany and the caption in the title credits says that the 99 war criminals sentenced to prison were all eventually freed by the time the film was shown in 1961. 

The film is well acted by the big cast. Richard Widmark is very credible in his emotion-packed opening statement as prosecuting lawyer Col. Tad Lawson at the start of the trial calling for the harshest punishments for the erring judges. 

Giving great support are Dietrich as the aristocratic widow who owns the house where Haywood stays and Garland as a woman falsely convicted for allegedly having sexual relations with a Jew and polluting the Nazi master rac. 

Montgromery Clift as the pitiful victim of a Nazi sterilization program appears in just one long scene and gets nominated as Oscar best supporting actor but lost to George Chakiris in “West Side Story”.

The only nominee from “Judgment at Nuremberg” who took home the Oscar was Max Schell) who has the most compelling role as the impassioned defense attorney Hans Rolfe. 

He interprets his part so intensely, arguing that by judging that the judges are guilty for upholding the laws of their country, this would be like saying that all Germans must be tried as most citizens turned a blind eye to the Nazi regime. 

He also rightfully says that the U.S. itself has committed acts even worse than what what the Nazis did. He cited many instances of U.S. atrocities, including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. 

Writer Abby Mann has written a thought-provoking screenplay (it won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay) with a sensible substance and persuasive message to the world about man’s responsibility to denounce evil doings that he sees around him. 

The characters are written with depth and the many moral ramifications of the case are expounded. 

Kramer’s direction allows his cast to do their best and helps them with engaging camera work that often circles around the actors specially when they deliver kilometric lines of expository dialogue. All of them are given their own highlight. 

The opening scene is quite bombastic, showing the swastika sign on top of a building then blowing it into beats, which was what happened to Hitler. 

This is a fate he deserved after what he did to the 6 million Jews he and his men killed in the Holocaust which was shown in footage presented as evidence to the court.

We also enjoyed the use of the German song “Lili Marlene” and its melody as part of the musical score. 

In the end, if you want to learn some lesson in history, this is an excellent way of doing it, but you can’t help but leave it with a feeling of sadness seeing the extreme cruelty men are capable of doing to their fellowmen.