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Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Directed by Stanley Kramer
For many of us, the Nuremberg trials stand as a shining example of the superiority of ius, what is just and right regardless of what a billion people may say, even if they have all the political power on their side, to lex, that is, the written law, the law on the books. That is because the judges decided not to permit the Nazi leaders and their tools to appeal merely to what had been the current German law to justify their actions. We may say that the law itself was on trial.
For the law doesn’t just exist all by itself. It is the product of human decisions, which may be good or evil. Nor does it matter, in the end, whether the people believe it to be good, since our belief that a bad thing is good is itself a bad thing. We appeal then to what people call the natural law, what C. S. Lewis called the Tao, the law written on the human heart; not the conclusions of moral thought, but its axioms and premises. And one of those axioms is simply that you tell the truth in word and deed.
Our Film of the Week, Judgment at Nuremberg, isn’t a dramatization of what actually happened to these or those specific persons. It’s a fictionalized account of the trials. It dramatizes instead what was at stake: the principles, the social and political consequences, the bad conscience of a defeated nation, the perhaps too easy conscience of a victorious America, and, for an array of individual German persons, the meaning of what had happened, of what they had done or had allowed to be done, or what had been done to them. Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has been rustled up from his retirement in the backwoods of Maine to head the trial, possibly because the American officials hope he can be pushed around. He can’t be. His fellow justice, Curtiss Ives (Ray Teal; you may recall him as the sheriff in the series Bonanza), would dispense with ius and constrain the court by what was legal in Germany at the time when the crimes against humanity were committed. The politicians back home want to soft-pedal the trials.
Judge Haywood meets a widow, Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), who seems interested in him, and who wants to persuade him not to think of all of the German people as monsters. The attorney for the defense, Herr Rolfe (Maximilian Schell, who won the Oscar for best actor in a leading role), points out with relentless energy, if not quite accuracy, that Americans themselves, and other Europeans, had said the things that Nazis said, had temporized with Hitler when they should have helped the German people get rid of him, and had committed war crimes that must curdle the blood of fair-minded people. And then there is the most honorable and tragic of the defendants, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), himself a judge, intelligent, kindly, scholarly, who despised the Nazis, but who did what he thought he had to do in a terrible situation. “I never thought it would come to this,” he says to Judge Haywood privately, at the conclusion of the trial. “Herr Janning,” says Haywood, in one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history, “it came to this the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”
Judgment at Nuremberg is not always an easy film to watch. You have, for example, the brilliant performance by Montgomery Clift of a man whom the Nazi officials neutered, on the grounds that he was feeble-minded; as the atheistic Judge Holmes once callously put it, “three generations of idiots is enough.” The prosecuting attorney (Richard Widmark) is single-minded and immovable. At least one of the defendants, Herr Hahn (Werner Klemperer; the bumbling Colonel Klink on the comedy Hogan’s Heroes), is thoroughly unapologetic, and Herr Janning — who has not wished to be defended at all — finds it loathsome to sit in the same room with him. Frau Bertholt will not speak to Judge Haywood after he delivers his verdict. He has no friends at all in Germany, says his aide (William Shatner). But the old country judge does what is right. And right is right, to the end of time.
Click on the poster above to view full film.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.