Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)

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Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer (1961).

Score: Like munching on cork.

The title is self-explanatory: this is a courtroom drama based on the real-life Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted judges, clerks and collaborators of the Third Reich. It has an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift and it’s basically three hours of large hams yelling at each other in a courtroom.

It has nearly zero plot and most of the action is the trial itself, centering on four judges who sterilised and sentenced people to death at concentration camps purportedly for political reasons. While the production and acting are quite in line with the style back in the day for a superproduction, I found the hammy acting excessive, especially when underlined by whispering reinstatements for a more obvious effect. There was an instance of extreme zooming in that was unintentionally hilarious but I have to say I really liked how the first few minutes were shot in both German and English with interpreters and a zooming in tells us that the change to all-English is for our convenience, but German characters are still speaking German. I found it a very clever resource and I wonder why it’s not used more.

The most interesting aspect is the historical accuracy and the political reflection. The main questions that the film throws in the air are: should judges disobey when their countries’ laws are unjust? Who is really to be held responsible for the Holocaust, and what is the scope of that responsibility? How reasonable is it to believe that most Germans didn’t know about the concentration camps? Even if all these ordinary people are found guilty, is it any good to imprison them, or would any other course of action be more beneficial to society as a whole?

It does ask these questions but it’s not very deep or thorough at answering them. It’s a film, not a treaty on law, after all. It’s quite informative and accurate if you want to learn more about the period, but you’ll not learn anything new if you’re already familiar with the political regime, genocide, institutionalised racial persecution and extermination camps. If you’ve got teenage History students, maybe you can bore them to death with this. Beware: there’s actual footage of the liberation of a camp, in case you’re sensitive to that kind of images.

All in all, it’s more a fictionalised documentary than a film, worth a watch if the topic interests you.

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