1961

Film #230: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

One of the interesting things about this blog is seeing an actor’s career trajectory which goes from early success to late-in-life resurgence. One actor who seemingly had one last big run in the 1960s was Spencer Tracy, whose final film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has already been covered on the blog. Another of Tracy’s big films during the 1960s was Judgment at Nuremberg in which the actor plays small town judge Dan Heywood.


As the film begins Heywood has been recruited to sit as the chief justice at one of the many military tribunals of German judges accused of committing crimes against humanity by sending people of different religious beliefs to Concentration Camps. One judge in particular is the quiet and reserved Ernst Janning, played by an almost unrecognisable Burt Lancaster, who feels that he shouldn’t be tried alongside the crueller judges who seemingly knew what the Nazis were doing. The sides are argued by the forthright American Colonel Tad Lawson, played by Richard Widmark, and the passionate defence council Hans Rolfe played by Maximilian Schell who went onto win the Best Actor Oscar for his role. While in Nuremberg Dan meets Marlene Dietrich’s Frau Bertholt a wife of one of the judges who was previously put on trial and one that he almost romances however he realises that she is trying to manipulate his feelings to give a different verdict at the trial. Most of the film is set during the trial but is still incredibly gripping as Stanley Kramer attempts to make us question if doing something when you don’t know the full consequence is as bad as what the Nazis were doing at the concentration camps and I have to say it was a fascinating watch.

Despite its three hour run time Judgment at Nuremberg flew by thanks mainly to Tracy’s great performance as the conflicted Dan who comes off as an ordinary guy who has to make an extraordinary decision. Dan’s almost-romance with Frau Bertholt perfectly exemplifies his tough decision as she is one of the many characters who try to influence him in some way. The film is basically about accountability and how much each of these judges actually knew about the sentence they were giving to those who received them. Schell’s Oscar winning performance was incredibly heartfelt as he is able to convey someone who is sticking up for the bad guys but can still justify it because he is ‘doing his job’ and his final words to Dan perfectly encapsulate his feelings on the matter. It’s not just Schell though as I thought Tracy’s performance here was just captivating and better in fact than his two Oscar wining turns back in the 1930s. He’s one of those screen presences who can mesmerise you without saying anything at all and for that reason I feel in a way he should’ve won Best Actor over Schell. I also enjoyed Burt Lancaster, who is silent for the majority of his time on screen, as his final testimony is one of the highlights of the picture and once again adds to the moral ambiguity of the plot. While Judgment at Nuremberg may not be particularly cinematic it as at the same time an enthralling tale that I was never bored at and for that reason alone it deserved its place as one of the five Best Picture Nominees.

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