Known for his so-called “message movies,” independent producer/director Stanley Kramer made a career of bringing attention to social issues that most major studios looked to avoid. Whether he was exploring racism, nuclear war, or politics, Kramer always tried to approach his subject matter with humility, humanity, and when appropriate, humor, always within the framework of an engrossing narrative. Released in 1961, Judgment at Nuremberg may be both the best and most divisive film of his career. A fictionalized account of the Nuremberg Trials, held by the Allied forces after World War II, Judgment at Nuremberg contains some of the most riveting courtroom scenes committed to film.
Adapted from Abby Mann’s television play that had originally been produced as an April 1959 episode of Playhouse 90, Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg has a runtime of 179 minutes, but it doesn’t feel padded. Instead, the longer time simply gave the filmmaker time to address decidedly controversial issues such as global accountability for Hitler’s rise to power.
Set in 1948, Republican Chief Judge Dan Heywood (Spencer Tracy) arrives in Nuremberg, Germany to serve as chief justice of the tribunal prosecuting four high ranking judges in the German judiciary: Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), Werner Lampe (Torben Meyer), Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt), and the head of the Council of Justice Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) a celebrated legal and constitutional scholar many Germans believe shouldn’t be on trial at all.
With the emergence of the Cold War serving as a backdrop, government officials worried about future relations with Berlin, pressure Judge Heywood and prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) to go easy on the defendants. Essentially, they are asked to politicize their verdicts just as the German judges on trial had been pressured to do under Hitler’s regime.
The thrust of Colonel Lawson’s argument is straightforward: As educated adults, the defendants were complicit in various atrocities, including murder. Defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), passionately counters that the men were only upholding the laws of their country as they were, and doing the jobs they were appointed to do. And as uncomfortable as it may be, Rolfe asks, “if Germany is guilty, what about the American industrialists who profited in rebuilding Germany’s military might, or Winston Churchill, who praised Hitler’s leadership as late as 1938?”
Uncomfortable, indeed. Nonetheless, it’s the raising of these questions that gives Judgment at Nuremberg its power. Nothing is black and white, and screenwriter Abby Mann strives to give every character, no matter how small, whether it be Haywood’s aide (William Shatner, in one of his first film roles), or the servants working in Judge Heywood’s residence (Virginia Christine and Ben Wright), something important to contribute to the narrative.
Featuring a true all-star cast, Judgment at Nuremberg boasts four Oscar nominated performances. Considered by many to be one of the greatest actors of all-time, Spencer Tracy is quietly powerful, and affecting. Montgomery Clift, in one of his last roles, appears in just one long scene, but it’s unforgettable. As Rudolph Petersen, developmentally disabled, he had been a victim of sterilization. Authentic to a fault, it is painful to watch him disintegrate into utter confusion. Judy Garland is also riveting as Irene Hoffman, a German woman falsely convicted of illegal sexual relations with an old man, a Jew, who had been a friend of the family for years.
All three earned well-deserved Oscar nominations, but the only win came for Maximilian Schell, who in reprising his role from the Playhouse 90 production, gives what can only be described as a powerhouse performance from start to finish.
Though Burt Lancaster id some of his finest work during this period, he’s probably the weakest cast member here. Sporting no discernible German accent, and looking too much like himself, Lancaster is simply not believable in the role. That said, he still manages to deliver a riveting speech on the witness stand. Not to be forgotten, Marlene Dietrich is excellent as a German woman trying to come to terms with conflicted feelings about her beloved country.
Framed in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Twilight Time’s 1080p transfer shows the occasional piece of age-related debris, on what is largely a sharp image. Grayscale is very impressive with whites that look appropriate throughout. It’s nice to see a classic film get the transfer it deserves.
The disc offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and 5.1 sound mixes. Both are quite good, but the re-purposed 5.1 track is the standout. Directionalized dialogue is surprisingly strong, as clear dialogue zigs off various sides of the courtroom. Ernest Gold’s music is spread very nicely throughout the soundfield, and sound effects are well placed.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Isolated Music and Effects Track: Ernest Gold’s score is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Overture-Intermission-Exit Music: May be selected to be played with the film (only using the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track) in the main menu making the film’s running time 190 minutes.
- In Conversation with Abby Mann and Maximilan Schell (SD, 19:38) Recorded in 2004, screenwriter Abby Mann, and actor Maximilian Schell discuss their careers working in television, movie, and Broadway adaptations of the story.
- The Value of a Single Human Being (SD, 6:03) Abby Mann reads from his Oscar winning screenplay, and discusses its themes.
- A Tribute to Stanley Kramer (SD, 14:27) Kramer’s widow provides a general overview of her husband’s life, and career,
- Original Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3:00)
- MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (HD, 2:06)
- Six-Page Booklet: In her essay, Julie Kirgo discusses the film’s production. Still photos are also included.
There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested should go to www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.