BR: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

January 21, 2015 | By

 

JudgmentAtNurnberg_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  November 11, 2014

Genre:  Drama / WWII / Holocaust

Synopsis: Vivid, intelligent, deeply affecting drama compacting lesser figures – Nazi judges – on trial for crimes against humanity in Nuremberg, shortly after WWII.

Special Features:  Isolated mono music & effects track / 2004 interview featurettes:  “In Conversation with Abby Mann and maximillian Schell (19:32) + “The Value of a Single Human Being” (5:59) + “A Tribute to Stanley Kramer” (13:21) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 


 

Review:

Abby Mann’s original 1959 Playhouse 90 teleplay was a risky venture in spite of being broadcast 15 years after the end of WWII, tackling the subject of Nazi atrocities when the general public (specifically American and European audiences) had little interest in hearing more tales about murdered Jews and details of something called concentration camps.

As Mann recounts in the Blu-ray’s interview featurettes, after high profile Nazi brass were tried and convicted in the city of Nuremberg for their inhumane crimes, the shift to more banal figures seemed to foment an attitude of shooing the rest of the crimes under the rug, forgetting the horrors of the war, and moving forward with an emphasis on restoring cities, rebuilding trust among nations, and more importantly, rebuilding Germany, as the country was now a key player against aggressive Soviet maneuvers plotting to gobble up parts of Europe, including Germany itself.

Lessons can only be learned if history is recorded, and Mann knew the key to swaying audiences from a position of denial, if not deliberate ignorance, was to construct a work in which there were many levels of grey, and the murderous deeds were dissected in court using rational, clean arguments, and depicting the evasion of truth, the reluctance and fear of traumatized witnesses; and lawyers using wounded souls as pawns to ensure their own success in winning a case rather than a moral victory.

Kramer’s career began as a producer of Message pictures, and Judgment at Nuremberg is no different, but it’s so well crafted that it really represents the producer-director at his peak; a few years later, the dourness of the subject matter seemed to move him towards polar material, especially the epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and the quirky, broad The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), but there’s a sense each of Kramer’s prior Message pictures were lead-ups to this potent statement on what Mann describes as the importance of ‘the value of a single human being.’

The core drama involves the trials of four once-respected judges, of which Janning (Lancaster) has tumbled from a position of the highest peer respect to outright disgrace. How did a man responsible for writing humanistic texts on jurisprudence become part of the Nazi extermination machine?

Mann’s script is very careful in orienting the characters, slowly opening up the main conflicts as Jannings and his associates are defended by a clever, fire-eyed lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximiliam Schell) and the prosecution is headed by of Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), who brings both contempt for the Nazis, and a media presentation of horrific concentration camp footage to hammer home the end results of the Nazi killing machine.

Judge Heywood (Tracy) is the impartial authority, a calm and meticulous man flown to Germany to preside over the trial to ensure it’s done right, and silence claims of unnecessarily drumming up wartime horrors as recounted by ordinary citizens , which include a ‘feeble man’ (Montgomery Clift) sterilized by doctors, and a town harlot (Judy Garland).

Mann contrasts their experiences with Heywood hearing personal anecdotes from the servants managing the house in which he’s been billeted, and its former owner, Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich, very understated, and very affecting), with whom he develops a friendship and subtle attraction.

It is obvious that Dietrich’s character was designed to ‘open up’ the drama, allowing for some gentle pauses between lengthy courtroom scenes, and contrast the details of bad Germans with more mournful views from a recovering populace trying to salvage its dignity after a fiery defeat. Dietrich also represents a kind of ‘grey German’ – one who may have objected to the Nazis’ remaking of the country into a monochrome nation, yet didn’t complain because it would’ve upset economic and socially stability.

Dietrich’s scenes with Tracy are covered in a haze of schadenfreude – Bertholt is relieved the nightmare of WWII is over, but one can sense a seething sadness in being surrounded by the physical, economic, and physical wreckage that surrounds the historic city of Nuremberg. She’s not a Holocaust denier, but her pleas to Heywood to stop digging up more horrors and ‘let the past be the past’ allow Mann and Kramer to explain via Heywood’s replies, and later through the brutal courtroom interrogations of Garland and Clift’s characters, why horrific acts must never be locked up and forgotten: the Nuremberg trials were more than bringing criminals to justice – they were a valuable opportunity to put on record a pattern of behavior to ensure a repeat of the Holocaust would never occur in any nation. (The irony is that the Nazis demonstrated how it was possible to exterminate more than 6 million people; some of the procedures to deceive and murder come in handy in mass murders committed in other continents by despicable regimes and despots.)

The most interesting relationship in the film belongs to Lawson and Rolfe, rival attorneys who share some sharp barbs on the courtroom floor. Lawson is so disgusted with Rolfe’s arguments and handling of key witnesses, he never even looks at him, exception in one smug moment in which the prosecution has earned a pleasing victory, and can’t help but send a look that screams ‘Eat that, you Nazi sympathizing motherfucker.’ Rolfe is doing his job, but his dismissive tenor makes the questioning of Clift and Garland’s characters painful to watch. (It also doesn’t hurt that both actors were in extremely emotionally fragile states, making their performances career highs.)

The dramatic peaks in Mann’s script eventually lead to Janning’s outburst, which resolves the trial and brings the film to a rather subdued close. It’s to Mann and Kramer’s credit that Judgment doesn’t end in some symbolic victory dance, but a series of sad moments in which the reality of recent history slowly sink in to those complicit (Janning) and those moving forward with blinders (Bertholt).

Judgment boasts  a great top-level cast, plus a fine group of supporting actors, including Werner Klemperer (Hogan’s Heroes) as the most repulsive of the Nazi judges, William Shatner as Lawson’s aide, and many fine character actors.

Kramer covers the courtroom scenes with long takes and sometimes elliptical camera movements, gliding back and around subjects, or doing full 360 degree crabs around seated witnesses to ensure the impact of words and performance aren’t whittled away by edits.

He also manages a very clever cheat which John McTiernan borrowed for The Hunt for Red October (1990): although German is initially spoken by the accused and Rolfe, after a close zoom-in and zoom-out to a character, everyone speaks only English, but the actors still go through the motions of raising headphones and awaiting a translation by boothed interpreters before replying – a trick that works extremely well.

Ernest Gold’s score is fairly discrete, working its way through pompous quasi-Nazi marches and slight underscore to source music.

Although an epic courtroom drama, Kramer chose the more TV-friendly 1.66:1 ratio; with visual information kept centered, it ensured cropped TV airings wouldn’t dilute the film’s impact. Beautifully shot in a stark docu-drama style by Ernest Laszlo (D.O.A., Vera CruzLogan’s Run), with some second unit location footage of decimated neighbourhoods, Judgment is also perfectly cut by Frederic Knudtson (This Land is Mine, Inherit the Wind, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), making this another rare example of a 3 hour film moving like a 2 to 2.5 hour movie. (The most perfect examples of such taut editing remain Philip Kaufmans’s The Right Stuff and Michael Mann’s Heat.)

Stills gallery excepted, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray ports over the extras from MGM’s 2004 DVD, although the interviews seem to have been videotaped around 2001, just as Mann was overseeing the adaptation of his film into a stage play. The featurettes respectively cover Kramer the crusading filmmaker, Mann on the genesis of his Oscar-winning script, and Mann and Schell discussing the script, characters, and Schell’s unique involvement with the material which earned him a Best Actor Oscar after having played the same character in the 1959 teleplay and 1961 film, and later playing Janning in 2001 on stage. (Pity there’s no taped recording of the 1959 teleplay nor stage play on home video.)

The original trailer hypes the stars and packs in the most shrill moments, and feels rather exploitive of the material, although more than likely the only way to sell the film’s challenging subject matter and hide its length was to emphasize major stars in their most dramatic moments. That said, what appears as histrionics in the trailer have a proper build-ups in the film, proving the performances, including Lancaster’s, are rock solid.

Unique to Twilight Time’s Blu is an isolated mono music & effects track with Gold’s score, and Julie Kirgo’s fine liner notes, which champion Kramer the director after being marginalized, if not regarded as a sermonizing filmmaker. Also emphasized is the moral greyness of characters, because not every person’s swerve towards evil can be so easily explained; and the film’s place as the first major motion picture with actual graphic excerpts from concentration camp footage. (In fact, Widmark traveled to Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, and shot fascinating 16mm colour footage of his trip, some of which is excerpted and contextualized in an episode of Biography, included as a bonus item in Fox’ Hell and High Water DVD.)

Why MGM chose to let Judgment fall out of print on DVD is a conundrum – the film deserves to remain in print in perpetuity as an important postwar drama, and a representation of Stanley Kramer in top form – but kudos to Twilight Time for releasing a full HD version in North America.

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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