Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 movie that presents a fictionalized dramatization of the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. By fictionalized, we mean that the specific events and characters in the movie are entirely fictional, but do allude to similar real-life scenarios that took place during the actual Nuremberg Trials. Thus, the movie's "Feldenstein case", closely mirrors the real-life "Katzenberger Trial", while the overall setting mirrors the real-life "Judges' Trial". (Wikipedia has plenty of information about this.)
The film, directed by legendary director Stanley Kramer, boasts a truly stellar cast, including Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Richard Widmark, Spencer Tracy and, in a relatively small role, William Shatner as young court clerk Captain Byers.
The year is 1948, with much of Germany still in ruins after the fall of the Third Reich and the country's occupation by Allied forces...
Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) and three other judges who functioned under the Nazi regime are brought before a US-led military tribunal in Nuremberg to be tried for war crimes. There, a panel of three judges, headed by the American chief justice in this case Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), preside over the proceedings.
Janning was an esteemed judge in Germany before Hitler's ascent to power. So why did he continue on the bench after it became evident that the Nazi regime was interfering in justice following the adoption of the "Nuremberg Laws" and other Nazi legislation that legalized antisemitism and the principles of scientific racism?
Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) prosecutes the case against Janning, trying his best to prove that because Janning was already a noted judge prior to the Nazi regime, he therefore made the conscious decision to continue in a profession where justice was slowly being warped and inhuman practices supporting Nazi ideology were slowly destroying the principles of an impartial judiciary.
Meanwhile, Janning stays silent, seemingly viewing the entire proceedings with contempt.
At issue is a case involving a elderly Jewish man tried in Janning's court and subsequently put to death in 1942 for "race defilement". Specifically, the man was accused of having an illegal sexual relationship with a sixteen-year-old "Aryan" girl, Irene Wallner, portrayed by Judy Garland.
Wallner is at first reluctant to testify in the case, arguing that it is better to just let bygones be bygones. But she is ultimately persuaded to come to the court.
Meanwhile, the German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) provides Janning with an undeniably passionate and brilliant defense.
As all of this unfolds, Judge Haywood takes time...
...to try to learn a little about the country he barely knows.
He also meets the widow of a German general (Marleine Deitrich) who presses Haywood that guilty verdicts won't help post-War Germany to move forward at all.
Add to that, the rapidly escalating Cold War, which is dramatically shifting alliances - now (West) Germany is a key ally against the Soviet bloc (as this film was being made, this was as true as ever, with the the erection of the Berlin Wall by communist East Germany and a famous visit to West Berlin two years later by JFK). Pressures are building to end the Nuremberg Trials as expediently as possible - guilty verdicts might even be politically undesirable...
Will the judge be swayed as the situation increasingly takes on numerous shades of gray?
So what to make of all this? We found Judgement at Nuremberg to be an absolutely terrific piece of drama. A number of potential dramatic pitfalls to telling such a story are very cleverly avoided. Crucially, rather than presenting a drama in which the indefensible principles of Nazism are easily and predictably defeated on-screen, the movie travels a far more complicated road. Defense attorney Hans Rolfe raises many nuanced issues of moral responsibility, very similar to those seen in the Bill Shatner 1971 drama The Andersonville Trial.
Isn't honor represented by following orders and serving your country? Isn't staying in one's post and trying to make things a little less horrible better than simply resigning in disgust? Are the entire German people on trial for the concentration camps, the genocides, the crimes against humanity? Was it a few top leaders? Just how far down the ladder can blame be apportioned? Those are the issues raised by the defense in the movie...
Looking to today's events as the regime of Col. Gaddafi mercilessly bombs civilians in the rebel-held city of Misurata, one can't help but wonder how loyalist soldiers could possibly commit such heinous acts. "We were told we had to cleanse Misurata. There were invaders from Egypt and we had to fight against them," one 17-year-old Libyan conscript recently told the Daily Telegraph; another teenager said: "We were told Misurata had been occupied by militant gangs and drug addicts." Evil? Ignorance? Misinformation? Fear? Does such knowledge of the other side 's motivations muddy the waters?
Who knew what and how much is an important and complex issue in Judgment at Nuremberg...
The defense reacts to the presentation of horrific (real-life) footage of liberated Nazi concentration camps.
Without exception, the performances in this movie are absolutely superb. Particularly notable is Burt Lancaster - rigid, proud, a powder-keg of compressed and complex emotions (as always). And also the German actor Maximilian Schell, whose energetic (Oscar-winning) performance as a man doing the best job under the worst circumstances is truly spellbinding.
We must also single out the remarkable camera-work in this movie. Much like the best photography of the Enterprise bridge in Star Trek, the camera often sits below eye-level, elevating the players, with slow axial (circling round the subject) tracking-shots giving the entire proceedings a sense of majestic importance. Sublime...
Meanwhile, Bill Shatner's role is certainly Sulu-esque, in that it is rather inconsequential, but the young actor exudes a surprisingly confident (his first line is a very Kirk-like "You both know your duties...") and even charming on-screen persona, despite being surrounded by such an illustrious cast.
And he's always there, quietly sitting in on the entire court proceedings - if only there were more classic movies (Casablanca?) in which Bill Shatner just sat in the background quietly. That might be strangely weird/fun!
Let's move swiftly to the hair...
Bill Shatner is wearing a "Jim Kirk lace" - nothing unusual there, although the hairline looks somewhat thicker and a little more pointed than usual, the former perhaps underscoring that this was a pre-shave lace, in which a real, albeit thinning, hair-line was still preserved underneath (later shaving or increased baldness may have allowed a more realistic "frontal swoosh" - more in this recent post).
The mechanics of the former were explained (as Bill Shatner watched on) in "The Project Strigas Affair":
Incidentally, Bill Shatner isn't the only "laced-up" actor on-screen:
Given the actor's small role, there really aren't any toupological moments to speak of per se.
However, in a marvelous piece of directorial subtlety - one no doubt overlooked by even the most analytical of film critics - Stanley Kramer does appear to provide viewers with some toupular symbolism:
Notice how Bill Shatner is framed: between two bald, shiny objects. The light-bulb often symbolizes enlightenment or an idea. On one side, the light shines; on the other, it does not. In between, a third light-bulb - but something is different. The middle light-bulb - a human head - is blocking the electrical current. Is there an insulating material at work. A toupee? It's an extremely complex image to decipher and throughout the course of the year our staff will certainly be publishing several books analyzing what Kramer may have been trying to say.
Also, reader "TMK" recently pointed to a behind-the-scenes image from Judgment at Nuremberg featured in a documentary about William Shatner.
Is it a toup-less image?
The last probable toupless photo we have is from 1960, and sharply contrasts with Bill Shatner's on-screen follicular lushness (more info on this image here):
The same appears to be evident in the image from Judgment - however, our toupologists tell us that they need a better resolution image before they can make a more definitive analysis. We have to be very careful with such calls as world financial markets could easily be sent into a needless tailspin as the result of an erroneous call!
Bill Shatner's autobiography Up Till Now contains some interesting stories about the actor's experiences working with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster in this movie and they're well worth reading.
Anyway, to sum up: we thoroughly recommend Judgment at Nuremberg - simply great drama. The movie is available on DVD.