Friday, October 17, 2014

A-Z Movies, J: "Judgment at Nuremberg"

Recommended by:
Nick (friend)

Movie Stats:
Released 1961 (West Germany)
American, in English (significant amounts of German, mostly translated)
Director - Stanley Kramer
Stars - Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster, and many, many others

Plot Summary:
For those of you who don’t know your history, HERE is a link to the wiki on the Nuremberg trials. This movie represents a fictionalized account of those trials. American judge Dan Haywood (Tracy) is called to Nuremberg to preside of the trial of four German judges (one of whom is Dr. Ernst Janning, played by Lancaster) who stand accused of crimes against humanity. Widmark co-stars as prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson, and Schell as defense attorney Hans Rolfe.

The movie utilizes some actual historic footage of liberated concentration camps, including scenes of naked dead bodies and other disturbing images.

Bad Stuff:
It’s long (3 hours), it’s slow, and it’s dry as a bone.

Some of the camera work was very amateurish. You know that video of the dramatic prairie dog? Some scenes had that same kind of “dun dun DUN” feel to them, to the point that it actually made me laugh.

Sometimes it seemed more like an educational film that a teacher might have shown me in high school than a major motion picture. It was also a little preachy, although certainly not as much as it could have been.

Good Stuff:
The acting is phenomenal. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was good (even William Shatner, as Haywood’s aide Captain Harrison Byers), but my favorites were Montgomery Clift (as trial witness Rudolph Petersen), who was absolutely riveting, Maximilian Schell, and Judy Garland (as trial witness Irene Hoffman), who was unrecognizable.

This is the kind of movie that makes you uncomfortable in the good way. It asks a lot of tough questions about culpability, personal responsibility, the extent of one’s duty to one’s country, and what it means to be a judge who’s sworn an oath to uphold the law when the law becomes amoral. There were a lot of scenes that I cringed through, especially Hans Rolfe’s attempts to defend his clients, but at the same time I was cringing, I was impressed by how masterful they were.

The Verdict:
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of courtroom dramas. Actual court proceedings are boring. To combat this fact, TV shows/movies tend to interject excitement by having judges/witnesses/lawyers make big, dramatic speeches that would never, ever be allowed to happen in a real life court. I find the whole spectacle overblown and tedious and this film was not an exception to that rule.

However, I feel that it is an important movie for everyone to see at least once. I put it in the same category as films such as Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave, films that aren’t especially enjoyable to watch but are necessary to see because understanding the past is important. In most history classes, the Nuremberg trials are a footnote. This movie not only gives insight into them, but also into the precarious position of the United States in Germany after WWII, where our brief alliance with the Soviet Union slowly began to collapse and the Cold War took shape.

If nothing else, you should watch it for Montgomery Clift’s 12-minute scene. It’s one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. 

I give the movie 3.75 stars.


Patricia said...

Isn't "Montgomery Clift" your standard movie trivia answer when you don't know? (And also the reason you won the Trivia Throwdown when we played in the Yurt at the campground outside of Bend.)

"Dry as a bone" doesn't give me much motivation, but I agree with you in theory if not in practice. (So far.)

I read a YA novel last year that partially was set during the Nuremberg trials. It was called "Rose Under Fire" and I though the trial portion was interesting.

I'm feeling nervous because one of my recommendations is up next. I look forward to your review.

balyien said...

You are correct about Montgomery Clift! Although now that I've seen all the Oscar winners, I suspect I'd be better at the "old movies" portion of Trivial Pursuit and wouldn't have to invoke him as often.

Even though I think movies like this one are important viewing, I don't think I'd ever recommend it. For example, if someone asked me for a great movie to watch, this wouldn't be remotely close to the top of my list. Maybe if you're ever sick in bed and are looking for a non-violent WWII movie...

Believe me, after watching this, I'm very much looking forward to seeing your recommendation. I already have it in my hot little hands.