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.)