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Film rec: Judgment at Nuremberg

Since this is a movie post, perhaps it belongs over on mollyringwraith, but it would be too jarring a contrast after the frivolous parody of Harry Potter #6. Anyway, it's about history and politics as much as fandom.

We Netflixed Judgment at Nuremberg and finished watching it last night. It was, in a word or two, bloody fascinating. This film has been around since 1961, so you may well have seen it already, but I hadn't. It is a courtroom drama, based on true events, about the 1948 trial of four German judges who served under the Nazis. This trial is a bit less cut and dried than the trial of the actual Nazi generals. After all, these were only judges; should you be punished for merely doing your job and carrying out the law, even if the law was signed by Adolf Hitler? Is it really your fault what was happening to the country? Weren't you just trying to uphold some order in a chaotic time?

Or at least, that was part of the defense. I don't envy the attorney who had to defend Nazi collaborators, but the part was played to absolute brilliance, and surprising sympathy, by young Maximilian Schell (who won an Oscar for the role). Why send only these four men to prison, if they were partially guilty for the crimes of the Nazis?, he points out. Why not send all of Germany, or all of the western world?--the voters, the investors, the politicians, the citizens who looked the other way when their neighbors were put into boxcars and sent to Dachau? How did the Holocaust happen, if not for the collaboration, or at least mistakes, of the entire world?

Well, okay, but: I'm no fan of moral relativism, and neither were the American prosecutors. The fierce prosecuting attorney (played by Richard Widmark) chills the blood by his presentation of what he and the Allied troops discovered upon liberating a concentration camp. We've all seen the photos and films by now, of course, but it never fails to terrify me: the children with tattooed numbers on their arms, the ovens with charred skeletons, the piles of emaciated bodies, the parchment made of human skin. Nobody can defend that.

There is guilt and remorse among the defendants: Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), one of the German judges on trial, has a largely silent role, but the look of haunted devastation in his eyes should have been enough to earn Lancaster an Oscar too. When he does break his silence, it is to deliver an indictment and lament of what has happened to his native land, and of the atrocities in which he and his colleagues assisted, unwittingly or not.

Spencer Tracy, fabulous as the tough-love-dealing judge presiding over the case, cannot help admitting that some kind of horrible mob mentality did take hold of Germany during WWII, and that it is hard to place blame on individuals, beyond Hitler and his immediate henchmen. However, says judge Tracy in the end, we must hold each man accountable for his own actions; for the most important thing in the world, and what was so tragically lost for a time during the Holocaust, is "the value of a single human being." Amen.

All should see this film. Liberals, conservatives, Americans, Europeans, anyone. That the Holocaust was horrible--no, so far beyond "horrible" we don't even have a word for it--is something we can all agree upon. How it happened, how everyone let it happen, is more of a mystery. How far can we be held accountable for laws that are forced upon us? How far should we submit for our own comfort and safety, before it becomes criminal? Judgment at Nuremberg, like any good trial, lets both sides have their say.

It's not nearly as traumatizing to watch as Schindler's List, but there is that bit of actual concentration-camp footage, so be warned if you cannot bear to see that stuff.

Acting, as I've indicated, was excellent all around, including smaller parts by Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. (Marlene Dietrich I wasn't that impressed with.) Best of all, William Shatner is in it!--young, clean-cut, adorable, and sounding nothing at all like Kirk. He's actually a good actor when he wants to be. (Just teasing. You know I love you, Shatner.)


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 9th, 2005 04:46 pm (UTC)
Sounds worthy of checking out. Even if it doesn't have the signature. Shatner. Dramat. Ic pauses.
Aug. 9th, 2005 06:30 pm (UTC)
How. Can you criticize. My. Captain?
Aug. 9th, 2005 06:36 pm (UTC)
Criticize? I love. The Captain! I even cheer. When my favorite. Indie rock. Station. Plays one. Of his. "Songs."
Aug. 9th, 2005 06:44 pm (UTC)
Hee hee. Dang, I need a Shatner icon!

His cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is of course a classic, though being a Britpop fan I have a special soft spot for his cover of Pulp's "Common People."
Aug. 9th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC)
There's a perspective on WWII that essentially says it was a war over how Socialism would run the world; national or international socialism was the choice, international socialism taking the match, so to speak. The various popular attempts to understand the war and all the suffering and death had to find some resolution, however arbitrary and contrived.

Aug. 9th, 2005 06:45 pm (UTC)
national or international socialism was the choice

Hm - interesting! That will require some thought.

It is indeed hard to see such atrocities and not come up with some theory on how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Seems we haven't quite worked it out yet, though, since unfortunately these things do keep happening, in various shapes and sizes...
Aug. 25th, 2005 11:18 am (UTC)
oh - sorry if this bores you, and it's OT a bit, but this hits close to sore spot for me:

Until WWII Soviet Union was seen as a threat by the Western world, mostly because the powers that be did not like a rather large country that was socialist. It did not help matters that USSR was struggling to get into the whole Industrial Age (it was still mainly feudal prior to the Revolution), and doing pretty good, considering that West mainly refused to trade with the upstarts, and we were still recovering from the long and bloody Civil War (which ended in the early 20's).

Some historians stipulate that this is how everyone "missed" the rise of Hitler - they were paying more attention to Stalin.

Anyway, many in the West did view WWII as Socialism against Fascism, and chose to side with Socialism (though it would've been hard for France to side with Germany aside from surrendering, which they didn't, no matter what the popular American opinion of the French)
Soviet Union at first tried to avoid being at war with Germany, not so much because we liked the Nazis, but because the country was still very weak industrially and agriculturally, and Stalin hoped to avoid weakening the country further (he did care for the country, if not for people).
When Germany attacked, though, USSR had no choice but to fight back and did it pretty well after we managed to build enough factories to build tanks and war planes and whatnot. If you look at the map and compare how far the USSR troops had had to go to get to Berlin and how far the Allied troops had to go, I think it is pretty clear who kicked more butt ^_^

Sorry, I just get really defensive when people in US say that USA won the WWII.
Aug. 25th, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC)
Right with you...Kursk was the turning point of WWII in that end of Eurasia, Midway was the turning point on the other end of the conflict; no doubts here about that. Also, if Zhukov had not been able to leave Siberia with his ten Divisions and come West, who knows...? It was a near disaster, the whole mess...thank God that Russians fought for Mother Russia.

So, the Socialist thing, that's about which type...National (ala Hitler and Saddam Hussein, for example) or International (Lenin, et. al., at this point Stalin) would be the favored type of Socialism 'going forward' as the various Monarchies and Democracies were crushed. The philosopy of the two are not that far apart (Eugenics, for example) and the International variety took the hegemonic high ground by sheer dint of blood and treasure.

The implications for today (UN, the present far left wing of the Democratic party here in the US, etc.) are still playing out. Ho Chi Minh, for example was an International Socialist vs. the Nationalist types. It's interesting that Syria and Iraq continued with the National Socialist approach for so long (Ba'ath party...nice folks, those) even into modern day without much direct conflict with the reigning Internationlists.

Thanks for you comments, good one about Mr. Lincoln's/Civil War BTW/+
Aug. 25th, 2005 06:36 pm (UTC)
Sort of a shallow tangent, but there was a pretty good film made recently involving the WWII defense of Stalingrad--Enemy at the Gates. I'm not informed enough to know how realistically it was portrayed (they focused on a love triangle for a certain portion anyway), but I enjoyed the film, and it was good to see the much-neglected Russian angle.
Aug. 25th, 2005 07:01 pm (UTC)
It's a (male) family favorite here...of course, it leaves out the panicked Soviet leadership urging the poor souls to die for God and the Virgin Mary and Russia, but we like the action scenes and the rough realism. Real war is hell, as my Dad would say (WWII vet).

Aug. 25th, 2005 08:32 pm (UTC)
Yeah - it was gritty, but well done. Snipers are automatically cool. I mean, provided they're aiming at bad guys like Nazis.
Aug. 9th, 2005 07:47 pm (UTC)
I saw this years ago - it all came back as you wrote about it.

This movie shows that you can make a striking and memorable movie about the Holocaust without resorting to cheap shock tactics. The plain unadorned facts say it all.

Good rec.

Aug. 10th, 2005 08:01 pm (UTC)
*nod* This is one of those cases in history where, indeed, the facts don't need any adornment to be totally shocking. Which is why it's good to remember what happened.
Aug. 10th, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC)
There was a Theatrical/Philosphical movement post WWII called Absurdism. Of particular relevance to yoru post is a play written by Eugene Ionesco called "Rhinoceros" - The underlying theme is to show basically how easy it is for a person to fall under the spell of Conformity and Massification. I was lucky enough while I was at university to be able to be in a production of this show. If you are not familiar with the script, I would recommend it if for nothing else but the perspective it offers.
Aug. 10th, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Ionesco
Sounds interesting - will have to look that up. It was indeed a time in history that inspired some good art and good thinking...(in reaction to some terribly bad thinking).
Aug. 11th, 2005 06:27 am (UTC)
Re: Ionesco
It certainly did. Not long after Absurdism, Existentialism was born. I would recommend "No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre if you are interested in that as well.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )