Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 American courtroom drama film directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann and starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift.
Set in Nuremberg, Germany in 1948, the film depicts a fictionalised version of the Judges’ Trial of 1947, one of the 12 US military tribunals during the Subsequent Nuremberg trials.
The film centres on a military tribunal led by Chief Trial Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), before which four German judges and prosecutors (as compared to 16 defendants in the actual Judges’ Trial) stand accused of crimes against humanity for their involvement in atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. The film deals with non-combatant war crimes against a civilian population, the Holocaust, and examines the post-World War II geopolitical complexity of the actual Nuremberg Trials.
Judgment at Nuremberg centres 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 judge of a three-judge panel of Allied jurists who will hear and decide the case against the defendants. Haywood is particularly interested in trying to learn how the defendant Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) could have committed the atrocities of which he is accused, including the sentencing of innocent 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 US Army Captain Byers (William Shatner, see Star Trek), who is assigned to assist the American judges hearing the case, and Irene Hoffmann (Judy Garland), who is afraid to provide testimony that may bolster the prosecution’s case against the judges.
German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) argues that the defendants were not the only ones to aid, or at least turn blind eyes to, the Nazi regime. He also suggests that the United States has committed acts just as bad or worse than those the Nazis perpetrated. He raises several points in these arguments, such as US 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 early foreign recognition of Nazi leadership; Joseph Stalin’s part in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which removed the last major obstacle to Germany’s invasion and occupation of western Poland, initiating World War II; and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final stage of the war in August 1945.
Janning, meanwhile, decides to testify for the prosecution, stating that he is guilty of the crime he is accused of: condemning to death a Jewish man of “blood defilement” charges – namely, that the man slept with a 16-year-old Gentile girl – when he knew there was no evidence to support such a verdict. During his testimony, he explains that well-meaning people like himself went along with Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist policies out of a sense of patriotism, even though they knew it was wrong, because of the effects of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles.
Haywood must weigh considerations of geopolitical expediency and ideals of justice. The trial takes place against the background of the Berlin Blockade, and there is pressure to let the German defendants off lightly so as to gain German support in the growing Cold War against the Soviet Union. In the course of the movie, it becomes apparent why the three other defendants supported the Nazi regime: one was afraid, one was following orders, and one actually believed in Nazism. All four defendants are found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Haywood visits Janning in his cell. Janning affirms to Haywood that, “By all that is right in this world, your verdict was a just one,” but asks him to believe that, regarding the mass murder of innocents, “I never knew that it would come to that.” 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 defendants sentenced to prison terms in Nuremberg trials that took place in the American Zone, none was still serving a sentence when the film was released in 1961.
- Spencer Tracy as Chief Judge Dan Haywood.
- Burt Lancaster as defendant Dr. Ernst Janning.
- Richard Widmark as prosecutor Col. Tad Lawson.
- Maximilian Schell as defence counsel Hans Rolfe.
- Marlene Dietrich as Frau Bertholt.
- Montgomery Clift as Rudolph Peterson.
- Judy Garland as Irene Hoffmann.
- William Shatner as Captain Harrison Byers.
- Howard Caine as Hugo Wallner – Irene’s husband.
- Werner Klemperer as defendant Emil Hahn.
- 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.
- Virginia Christine as Mrs. Halbestadt, Haywood’s housekeeper.
- Edward Binns as Senator Burkette.
- Torben Meyer as defendant Werner Lampe.
- Martin Brandt as defendant Friedrich Hofstetter.
- Kenneth MacKenna as Judge Kenneth Norris.
- Ray Teal as Judge Curtiss Ives.
- Alan Baxter as Brigadier General Matt Merrin.
- Joseph Bernard as Major Abe Radnitz, Lawson’s assistant.
- Olga Fabian as Mrs. Elsa Lindnow, witness in Feldenstein case.
- Otto Waldis as Pohl.
- Paul Busch as Schmidt.
- Bernard Kates as Max Perkins.
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” (from the prosecution’s opening statement in the film), from the time of 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 real Judges’ Trial focused on 16 judges and prosecutors who served before and during the Nazi regime in Germany, and who embraced and enforced laws – passively, actively, or both – that led to judicial acts of compulsory sexual sterilisation and to the imprisonment and execution of people for their religions, racial or ethnic identities, political beliefs, and physical handicaps or disabilities.
A key thread in the film’s plot involves a “race defilement” trial known as the Feldenstein case. In this fictionalised case, based on the real life Katzenberger Trial, an elderly Jewish man had been tried for having a “relationship” (sexual acts) with an Aryan (German) 16-year-old girl, 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 1942. Using this and other examples, the movie explores individual conscience, collective guilt, and behaviour during a time of widespread societal immorality.
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 the first mainstream drama film 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 the time.
According to numerous sources, Tracy’s climactic monologue was filmed in one take using multiple cameras. Clift had problems remembering his lines, so Kramer told him to do the best he could, correctly figuring that Clift’s nervousness would be central to his character’s mental state. (Clift was so eager to do the film that he worked just for expenses.) Lancaster only speaks three lines (none in the courtroom) until his lengthy outburst roughly 135 minutes into the film. And Garland was so happy to be working in a picture again after seven years that it took her a while to get into the proper frame of mind to break down and cry.
The world premiere was held on 14 December 1961, at the Kongresshalle in West Berlin, Germany. 300 journalists from 22 countries were in attendance, and earphones offering the soundtrack dubbed in German, Spanish, Italian, and French were made available. The reaction from the audience was reportedly subdued, with some applauding at the finish but most of the Germans in attendance leaving in silence.
Kramer’s film received positive reviews from critics, and was lauded as a straight reconstruction of the famous trials of Nazi war criminals. The cast was especially praised, including Tracy, Lancaster, Schell, Clift, and Garland. The film’s release was perfectly timed, as its subject coincided with the trial and conviction in Israel of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann.
Judgment at Nuremberg was released in American theatres on 19 December 1961.
CBS/Fox first released the film as a two-VHS cassette set in 1986. MGM re-released the VHS version in 1991 while the 1996 and 2001 reissues were part of the Vintage Classics and Screen Epics collection respectively. In addition, the special edition DVD was released on 07 September 2004.
Two Blu-ray versions of the film were also produced. A limited edition Blu-ray was released by Twilight Time on 14 November 2014. Kino Lorber re-released the Blu-ray as a standard release in 2018.
The Australian Blu-ray was released as part of The Hollywood Gold Series.
In 1985, a Soviet stage adaptation of the film under the title Judgment was produced for Baltic House Festival Theatre with Gennady Egorov as director.
In 2001, another 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.
- An earlier version of the story was broadcast as an episode of the same name of the television series Playhouse 90 in 1959.
- Schell and Klemperer played the same roles in both productions.
- In 2013, Judgment at Nuremberg was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Stanley Kramer.
- Producer(s): Stanley Kramer.
- Writer(s): Abby Martin.
- Music: Ernest Gold.
- Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo.
- Editor(s): Frederic Knudtson.
- Production: Roxlom Films and Amber Entertainment.
- Distributor(s): United Artists.
- Release Date: 14 December 1961.
- Running Time: 179 minutes.
- Rating: 12.
- Country: US.
- Language: English and German.