Just in

Judgment at Nuremberg (1962)

Spencer Tracy was unquestionably a Hollywood great, both a fine actor and a big star though not possessing the conventional hunky good looks of some box office male stars. His career was however, rocked if not racked by excessive drinking and a catholic guilt over his 26 year old affaire with Katharine Hepburn. In his sixties, after a typically uneven period in the late fifties in which he made a few turkeys like The Old Man and The Sea, his career recovered under the direction of Stanley Kramer in Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg the DVD of which I watched yesterday. I thought it would be instructive for the kids to see, what is essentially a documentary of the prosecution of 4 Nazi judges over which Tracy presides as Judge Dan Hayward.

As Richard Widmark as the prosecutor points out in his opening address, it’s an unusual trial as the Judges are prosecuted not for breaching the law but implementing it.

This is the gravamen of the case: should the judges be allowed the defence of implementing national law as  such as prosection of a Jew for a relationship with a 16 year old or the sterilisation of a communist?

Richard Widmark argues with some vigour yes, but such is the brilliance of the nuanced performance by Tracy that, until he delivers his verdict, you are unsure which way he is going to go. Matters are further complicated as the trial took place in 1948 after the the beginning of the Cold War and Tracy finds himself under political pressure as West Germany may prove an essential ally. Thus there was a feeling of not upsetting the native populace already broken by the bombing and defeat.

Tracy brings a humanity to the role in, for example, one scene in which he gently questions the German domestic staff he is allocated on how much they knew.

Widmark, drunk, scoffs at their ignorance by stating the country was clearly taken over by Eskimoes in 1933.

It’s a strong cast with Marlene Dietrich playing the wife of a general convicted by Widmark, Judy Garland, the 16 year old in question with the convicted old Jew, and above all Burt Lancaster as one of the German judges in the dock.

Montgomery Clift and a young William Shatner also appear.

Best of all – and an Oscar winner – was Maximilian Schell as the defence lawyer Rolfe.

Ironically Schell was a bitter anti-Nazi but like Tracy a distinguished theatrical actor who brought much craft to the role.

At 3 hours the film is over long and, as with all court room dramas, suffers from claustrophobia. Nonetheless it’s an important subject that not only our kids should understand.

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts