Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)


Abby Mann, the late screenwriter, wrote the script of Judgment at Nuremberg, a masterpiece beautifully simple, terribly powerful, and wonderfully sculpted.

One of the great movies, Judgment at Nuremberg, a drama of the trial in 1948 of four prominent German jurists who handed down murderous decisions during the Third Reich, is always topical. This crucial movie should be on the list of movies to revisit. It is a vital education, in its own way more stamping than touring museums and witnessing the desolate, fading scenes of the horror of that desperate period in Europe. If you do tour those places, your own imagination is harrowing but saving. But if it is focussed by art, it can be even more saving.

The theme of  Judgment at Nuremberg is preservation: Preservation of civilization.

The key to the movie and hence this theme is the common sense the Common Man of civilization–here elderly election-ousted US circuit court judge Dan Haywood (“I am rather provincial”) sent in his post-election idleness to the Old World to sit on the Nuremberg bench–shows about the powers of darkness.

It is a conversion movie. Judge Haywood is everyone.

And Mann, the artist, knows that “hay” and “wood” have a Frostian noble simplicity about them. They are basic. Judge Haywood is basic. Mann knows what he is doing.

The common sense of the Common Man is far removed from legal, geopolitical, military or economic senses. Here that common sense wars with those latter, and such extensively configured, senses. And practically everyone and everything in the enormous rationalized world wants you to have those latter senses, to be preoccupied with them, and above all to be guided by them.

This conflict between these two kinds of senses of things is Abby Mann’s drama. Because he trusts common sense in direness, Mann spends very nearly all of Judgment at Nuremberg bombarding you relentlessly with the several classic, specialized, highly rationalized, uncommon senses of that dreadful twentieth century tragedy and its post mortem, and Mann does so with Socratic power. Hans Rolfe, the German defense counsel, is brilliant at evoking the rationalized senses: in a classic seductive fallacy, his defense of his clients is basically that either no one is guilty or everyone is guilty. Various other testimony imposes the argument that loyalty to a state rather than to oneself deserves at least some claim of innocence. Societal role as determinative of conduct is another plea, this one made by the beautiful Frau Berthold, widow of a Wermacht General condemned to execution for war crimes by an earlier Nuremberg tribunal. Nuremberg itself and its people as seen by Judge Haywood when he strolls and dines there in the hours during which the court is out of session seem to reinforce the rationalized senses, except during a lonely stroll by the judge in the now empty, silent Nuremberg Festival grounds, a haunted place in which Judge Haywood senses the Nazi past and its awful reality.  As he strolls there, Judge Haywood falls back on something vital: his imagination.

And here Mann makes us return to one of the earliest scenes of the crime. He haunts us with it. This haunting, we notice, happens when Judge Haywood is by himself. No distractions.

Screenwriter Mann cannot within the confines of a movie satisfy the best historians by analyzing the period of the Treaty of Versailles and the Weimar Republic as a profound prelude to the Third Reich, though he does manage to bring up the Weimar Republic briefly but significantly during the trial testimony. But Mann understands his medium, the movies, the fundamental power of their directness. And Mann understands that through his art the common sense of the Common Man must be awakened.

More importantly, it must arise from an immediate, sensed revelation, first-hand or close to it. In the moment. Again, no distractions.

Because it’s his script, Mann bans in the moments of awful revelation any distractions from Hans Rolfe, US Generals facing the Berlin Blockade and becoming most Machiavellian about postwar Germany in the early Cold War against the Soviets, and other “considerations.” Nor will Mann allow us to show a most human conduct and avert our eyes from the reality. He wants the Common Man’s common sense to arise in the nightmare.

What is that pivotal experience in Judgment at Nuremberg?

In his Nuremberg courtroom, toward the end of the trial, Judge Haywood watches films of the massive horrors of Buchenwald, Dachau and other camps, films shown by prosecuting attorney US Army Col. Tad Lawson, which were taken during the liberation of various camps by American and British forces. (Like “Haywood,” “Lawson” is a most literary and thematic name.) Viewing those images is, of course, entirely personal. There is nothing–lawyers, defendants, witnesses, reporters, spectators–between the images and Judge Haywood’s psychology. The films are the ultimate testimony.

And what does Judge Haywood learn in his passing the harsh sentence of life imprisonment on all four German jurists? Judgment at Nuremberg is in one aspect that old moral warning about a “slippery slope.” In a final encounter near the end through which Mann most artfully means to make his deepest point, just after the trial has ended and Haywood is about to return to the US, Haywood visits the imprisoned Ernst Janning, the one estimable German jurist in the trial, and is told by that jurist that Haywood’s sentence is just. But then Janning proclaims that he had no idea a few sins in an ideologically besieged court would contribute to what happened, the massive horror. Haywood says, “It all started the first time you sentenced a man to death whom you knew to be innocent.”

So: Haywood doesn’t believe we are all guilty; but he believes we could be. And he certainly believes all of us are much of the time unaware of consequences.

And Mann trusts common sense will bring wisdom.

Stanley Kramer directs. Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift in primary roles.


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