The Second Judy Garland Blogathon: Judgement at Nurenberg
This is the Judy Garland blogathon, and please direct your browsers here to visit In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, that is hosting the blogathon and where you will find the entries for all the participants and their posts about Judy Garland’s movies and more.
Then get back here, because we are about to go somewhere really dark.
Judgement at Nuremberg is a 1961 black and white movie with a truly stellar cast: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, William Shatner, and Montgomery Clift.
The movie was directed by Stanley Kramer.
One does not hear about Kramer very much these days, but his CV includes a staggering list of classics: On the Beach, High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, Inherit the Wind, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World…
In 1961, Kramer decided to tackle the subject of the 1948 Nuremberg Trials, in which the higher echelons of the Nazi regime where tried for war crimes.
By using the classic structure of the courtroom drama, Kremer and scriptwriter Abby Mann took a stab at the deep, vicious darkness underlying not only the Nazis but the whole war and humanity at large.
The episode on which the movie focuses is the trial of four German judges that are accused of crimes against humanity, as they abetted and collaborated in the Final Solution.
The main action sees Spencer Tracy facing Burt Lancaster, the former as American judge Haywood, the latter as German judge and war criminal Ernst Janning.
A varied cast is involved in the trials, including Judy Garland in the role of a possible witness for the prosecution that is actually scared about the idea of telling her story in court.
It is probably impossible to tell this kind of story without producing a highly emotional film – and indeed Kramer’s movie hits a number of raw nerves and is as emotionally charged as they come.
The stark black and white matches perfectly the sense of oppressive evil that hangs on the court and on the characters.
But there is more, and it’s in the writing, and in the way in which this emotional, moving film also manages to deliver a complex series of moral dilemmas in a clear, hard-hitting way.
Maximilian Schell’s tour-de-force as the defense attorney, that mercilessly brings up all the instances in which our society openly supported ideas identical to those of the Nazis, is probably the highest point in the movie, and Burt Lancaster’s final self-accusation, and his admission of guilt is equally powerful, just as is the absolutely colossal final speech delivered by Spencer Tracy – 11 minutes done as a single take that burn like fire.
But the whole film is really so full of ideas, of unanswered questions and moral dilemmas, that a single view is enough to impress its memories in the viewer’s mind.
Here is Montgomery Clift’s scene, just another example of the power and the quality of this movie.
The relationship between law and morals, the relationship between the judges and the judged, the early post-war mental landscape of those people that were trying to handle the aftermath, everything is on the screen, in a classy, beautiful and heart-wrenching film.
And not exactly a picnic for the stars, either: Marlene Dietrich playing the role of the wife of a Nazi judge that claims most Germans knew nothing about the Holocaust going on, found her part so distasteful that she got physically sick during filming.
The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars, winning the Best Actor (Maximilian Schell – the lowest-billed lead category winner in history, being the fifth in the credits) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
This was Judy Garland’s first movie after a hiatus of seven years, and she was apparently extremely insecure about her role. Doubts also existed that her positive and fun persona might interfere with the character’s portrayal. In the end, she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Judgement at Nuremberg is the sort of movie that should be shown in schools. It was, back when I was a kid, here in Italy. It’s soul-shattering but its deeply rooted message of human decency and its handling of morals is important, especially in these times we are living in.
If you missed it, you should go and watch it right now.