***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich
screenplay by Abby Mann
directed by Stanley Kramer
by Walter Chaw By the end of the Fifties, the toll of about two decades of mainstream entertainment steadfast in its studied inoffensiveness catalyzed a movement in film and televison ("The Twilight Zone", one of the most politically-charged TV series in history, launched in 1959) that, fuelled by the twin prods of the death of Louis B. Mayer (the last of the studio moguls) and the discovery of Ed Gein's naughtiness in his wood shed (both in 1957), began to redefine what it meant to be "real." (One freed the artists, the other seemed to inspire them.) The new turks of the New Hollywood were Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, a real jerk and a screen jerk, respectively--self-serving, self-satisfied Old Glory jackanapes-next-door who embodied the theory of the antihero. And they put it in context of the blue-eyed, milk-fed, horse-kicked average Joe, the guy you wanted to be or wanted to bed, not just because they were dead sexy, but also because they were the future. You cast your lot in the Sixties with the rebels and didn't do a lot of apologizing for it.
The early Sixties saw, too, the grip of the Blacklist/McCarthy era beginning to reassert itself as more finger-pointers came out of exile to test the fresh waters. Apologias like On the Waterfront (1954) and Broken Lance (1954) found their doppelgängers in 1961 with The Hustler and Judgment at Nuremberg, the former from Robert Rossen, whose legacy was spoiled by his naming of names, the latter from avowed Hollywood liberal Stanley Kramer, never one to pass up a chance to proselytize in as long-winded and unimaginative a way as possible. Kramer's film is like a gavel to the bench--its opening holds on a swastika on top of a building for several beats until it's destroyed by munitions. What nuance there is can be found in the fantastic, sometimes astonishing, performances he gets from his cast: Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy (in one of four collaborations with Kramer (seeking salvation, perhaps)), and, more surprisingly, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland.
Judgment at Nuremberg isn't involved in the same conversation as the best films of 1961 (One-Eyed Jacks, The Misfits, One, Two, Three, West Side Story, The Hustler, and so on)--the seed of change carried on the wind of revolution was the last thing on its mind. But it represents a deeper cultural sea change than what might have been a fad at the movies: beginning life as it did as a live teleplay in 1959 on "Playhouse 90" (the venerated venue that discovered Rod Serling, among others), it took steady aim not at Nazis, but at Oliver Wendell Holmes, at the United States' policy of German appeasement at the beginning of the Cold War, and certainly at middle-America's self-righteous self-satisfaction. Deep water for dinnertime entertainment, the myriad ways that men of only medium heroism can be led astray by "nuance" while men of passionate faith can polarize into the camps of witches and witch hunters.
At first glance, Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy, taking over for Claude Rains from "Playhouse 90") is far from "passionate." Reserved, folksy, embarrassed by his aide Byers's (William Shatner) insistence on calling him by various titles, he's in postwar Nuremberg to lead the war crime tribunal presiding over the trials of a few lesser bogeys. The first hint that there might be a fire in the oven is when Haywood takes a tour of the war-ruined city, stopping for a sausage from a vendor, and flirting with a fräulein, only to learn with chagrin that she's called him "grandpa." That's about it for sex in the piece, despite the testimony of a wasted-looking Garland (she and Clift spent most of their time on location in the sauce and with the jitters), her character falsely accused of "corrupting the Aryan race" in a manufactured affair with an elderly Jew. Lancaster (taking over for Paul Lukas) is Dr. Ernst Lanning, German Minister of Justice during the Reich, facing the music of a few sterilizations--and a few saved lives as well--in the commission of his compromised duty. It's complicated, in other words: the message is that the affairs of humans are always complicated, and the fascination with Judgment at Nuremberg is that history and irony have multiplied those complications.
Beyond the fantastic, if stiff, Abby Mann screenplay, beyond the admirable decision to incorporate actual concentration camp footage for the first time in a major Hollywood feature (in conflict with the open policy at that time to let bygones be bygones), is the interest reserved for watching a piece that showcases the best of the old studio tradition acting alongside the best of the new Method style. Clift's cameo as a man who's been castrated is so transparent and fragile that it's nearly as difficult to watch as our introduction to the actor in John Huston's The Misfits, where he's assuring an unseen mother over the telephone that his face has healed sufficiently for her to recognize him again. The way that Clift plays off of Spencer Tracy on the one side and frantic, almost-frothing Schell on the other is an eloquent snapshot of the way that the ground was shifting--in both the Nuremberg of 1948 and the Tinsel Town of 1961.
MGM shepherds Judgment at Nuremberg to DVD in a 1.62:1 non-anamorphic (per the studio's policy on titles with an OAR of 1.66:1 or less) widescreen transfer that handsomely preserves Kramer's stolid, self-consciously stagy work. Grain, age artifacts--it's all kept to a satisfying minimum, while contrasts are good and bright. No complaints, either, about the Dolby 2.0 mono audio, which presents the dialogue of this talky piece without distortion. An optional DD 5.1 remix offers some directional effects that essentially throw voices around the room in accordance with camera and performer movements; I don't think starched-drawers Kramer would have approved, but it's well done in any case. The highlight of this single-disc Special Edition is "In Conversation: Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell" (20 mins.), featuring the pair chatting in a manner that initially suggests a mutual admiration society. The patient viewer will be rewarded, though, with insights into the climate surrounding the film in addition to a lot of praise for George Roy Hill (director of the "Playhouse 90" production) and suspiciously little for Kramer. The best Mann can do is remind Schell that Kramer championed Schell over a young Marlon Brando and then say that in the middle of Schell's dailies, Kramer was oft heard to remark "wow."
"The Value of a Single Human Being" (6 mins.) intercuts stills from the picture backed by narration from Mann (reading portions of his script aloud) with a straight interview in which Mann again reminisces. The good bits are already familiar from the previous doc and the rest of it feels a lot like self-congratulation. More puzzling is the way that "A Tribute to Stanley Kramer" (14 mins.) spends an inordinate amount of time on a lengthy episode relayed by widow Karen Kramer regarding their courtship before ravishing orchestral overtures usher us headlong into further anecdotes from the widow Kramer about how her beloved Stanley did junkets, always chose prickly topics, and, basically, how the sun rose and set with him. It's sweet, I guess, but I would have traded it for five minutes with Shatner. An exhaustive photo gallery is split between costume design, set design, on location, Stanley Kramer at work, and Judgment at Nuremberg's premiere in Berlin (where it was met by a belligerent German press), and a self-aggrandizing trailer (3 mins.) rounds out the film-specific extras. A "More Great MGM Releases" option that shows the DVD covers for 12 Angry Men, Inherit the Wind, and Witness for the Prosecution--three films that at least in look are identical to Judgment at Nuremberg--bring an official end to the supplementary material. Originally published: January 6, 2005.