One of the claims one frequently hears of a contemporary American film is that is based on fact, even though – for example – Captain Phillips is being sued by eight of the crew he apparently saved. It was not always thus. Judgment in Nuremberg (1961) was based on hard fact. It did not cover the main trial, but a later one in 1948 of four Nazi judges. The core issue in the indictment was the extent, if any, a judge is culpable for enforcing a domestic law where it breached an international one. The political backdrop was that, by this time, the Cold War had begun and Germany could prove a valuable ally against the spread of the Eastern communistic bloc. Thus Judge Haywood, played by Spencer Tracy, was under pressure not to upset the German people in his verdict.
Although much of the drama took place in the court room, as fascinating were the more informal discussions upon the extent of the average German ‘s knowledge of the atrocities. One of the best scenes is when Hayward asks this of the helpful cook in the hotel as she makes him a sandwich. A visible tension and embarrassment comes over when the cook and her husband deny any such knowledge,
The cast is strong with Hollywood heavyweights Burt Lancaster as Ernst Janning and Richard Widmark as prosecutor Tad Lawson. Maximilian Schell plays the defence lawyer Hans Rolfe, whilst Marlene Dietrich provided a cameo role as the seductive German widow and Judy Garland played a young German girl who had a sexual relationship with a Jew leading to a famous Nazi show trial.
Spencer Tracy, at his best as the bluff man of principle, delivers a fine speech when he sentences the four judges to life though ironically by the time the film was made in 1961 they were free men. As in the main trial, the horrors of the concentration camp were significant factors in reaching the guilty verdict.
I found myself so engrossed by the film that I rather resented Gail had invited a couple round for dinner and I could not see it through. At 178 minutes, it’s a longer film than most, but I was engaged for every minute of it.