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Cinema: Show Trial

3 minute read

Judgment at Nuremberg (Roxlom; United Artists). “I do not know the method,” wrote Edmund Burke, “of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.” The prosecution at the 1946 Nuremberg trials kept Burke’s dictum carefully in mind, but such scruples do not inhibit Producer-Director Stanley Kramer (On the Beach) and Scriptwriter Abby Mann, who also wrote the 1959 television play on which this movie is based. Ostensibly, four Nazi judges are on trial. Actually, by vigorous and frequent implication, the German people are on trial, and in a specious process that rivals in travesty the show trials conducted by the Nazis, they are found guilty.

Director Kramer has stacked seven portentous names (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift) above his portentous title—four of them are grossly miscast, but the customers won’t realize that until too late. And he has shrewdly timed the release of his movie to coincide with the reading of the judgment in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. But despite a singularly adroit performance by Maximilian Schell (Maria’s younger brother), Judgment is on the whole just one more courtroom meller and an awful long (3 hr. 20 min.) meller at that.

The trial begins on the highest moral and forensic planes with a charge that Germany’s judges, under political duress, destroyed the heritage of law that they were sworn to defend. But in short order the script stoops to conquer the attention with a long, clinically detailed and (for all legal and dramatic purposes) pointless discussion of sexual sterilization in the Third Reich. Next comes the prurient account of an episode in which an elderly Jew, accused of committing Rassenschande (race shame) with a 16-year-old “Aryan” girl, is legally murdered by a German judge. Finally, to complete his crescendo of sensationalism, Kramer cuts to some film clips of Buchenwald and starts bulldozing piles of corpses toward the horrified customer.

Defense Attorney Schell is permitted a pulverizing passage of eloquence in which he reminds the court (and the world) that in varying degrees the Soviet Union, the United States, the Vatican and even Winston Churchill (who as late as 1937 praised Hitler’s “courage, perseverance and vital force”) must share with the German people the blame for Nazi times and crimes. At another point Schell makes a withering deprecation of the victor’s right to judge the vanquished. “Is Hiroshima,” he wonders, “the superior morality?” And there are several scenes of punishing mockery in which U.S. authorities, worried by Russian aggressiveness and anxious to win the support of the German public, try to persuade Judge Tracy to acquit the defendants. Do they essentially differ, Kramer asks, from the Nazi politicians who put pressure on the very German judges Tracy is trying?

Such moments come too seldom. On the whole, Director Kramer has almost arrogantly exceeded his judicial warrant. He has also crudely mismanaged both actors and camera, and has carelessly permitted several reels of fat to accumulate around the movie’s middle. Many moviegoers may find themselves nodding sadly when the defense attorney sadly inquires: “Do you think those people over there have any concept of our problems?”

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