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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) - A Classic, but a Bit Stiff

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
"Judgment At Nuremberg" (1961).

Montgomery Clift steals Stanley Kramer's "Judgment At Nuremberg" (1961). Out of all the talent assembled for this blockbusters, his performance stands out head and shoulders above the rest. How he didn't win multiple awards for this is beyond me.
 
The early 1960s were the time of the big-budget "history summary."  "The Longest Day," "The Alamo," "How the West was Won," and this film.  Each of those films has its merits, and so does this one.  Just be aware of their limitations in story-telling (very weak), drama (very, very weak) and originality (virtually non-existent). This 1961 film is for people who want some kind of insight into what people were thinking and feeling at Nuremberg after World War II, and it actually does a pretty good job of that.

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
Werner Klemperer, years before Hogan's Heroes.

There are stunning performances in this film. This is one of the best "all-star" casts in film history. The acting is key, because there is little action in the standard sense, as is the case with most courtroom dramas. Black and white fits the story perfectly, reflecting the moral absolutes on trial.

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
Montgomery Clift in his best - and a very disturbing - performance.

Certain scenes have stuck with me for many years. Maximilian Schell conducts a brilliant defense using America's own history against it that, as a result of his training and culture, subtly veers toward the hectoring and abusive style of Third Reich prosecutors. The first witness, while leaving the stand, stops by defendant Lancaster to put away his eyeglasses without deigning to look at him. Prosecution witness Montgomery Clift, nervously starts out making jokes, then eventually comes apart and winds up showing the court a picture of his mother. Spencer Tracey quizzes the sweating German servants about life under Hitler, and they obviously know more than they are telling.

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
Judy Garland playing against type.

There are several career performances. Schell and Clift are perfect, and both deserved Oscars, though only Schell got one. Werner Klemperer, in real life a liberal, fiercely plays an unrepentant thug (his obstinate face eerily reflects off the courtroom glass as one of his former victims enters). William Shatner underplays a role beautifully for perhaps the last time in his career. Tracey plays the old pro with ease - best are his scenes strolling alone through the ruined city, hearing the echoes of evil.

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
Marlene Dietrich in her last big role.

I can understand the criticism of Richard Widmark as overplaying his part, but his character is clearly patterned on the real-life American prosecutor who had a nervous breakdown during the main trial as a result, essentially, of his over-zealousness. Is it really possible to overplay outrage at what the character testifies he saw at the camps? The reaction of the prisoners to the concentration camp films - one expressing outrage they were shown at the trial, one asking if it was even possible for such crimes to have happened, another explaining in just a little too much detail (clearly from personal knowledge) how it could have been done - is very well done, even if the scene is an obvious set-up.

If I have any problems with the acting, they primarily lie with Burt Lancaster, who is the empty heart of the film. The character was empty inside, true, but Lancaster portrays him as a bit too oblivious. I also am not a big fan of Marlene Dietrich's performance. Slightly more emotion would have been an improvement, as her blank, expressionless face fails to convey enough passion. However, her real-life background provides all the acting credentials needed for the role. In real life, she sang the song discussed in the film but was vehemently anti-Hitler. I'm sure that everyone knows that, but no sense not mentioning it for clarity....

Judgment At Nuremberg 1961 movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
William Shatner reports to Spencer Tracey. If you are ever discussing the topic of Shatner's best film, well, here it is.

It is interesting seeing film of Richard Widmark driving by the Brandenburg Gate - must have been filmed right before the Wall went up. The scene where a fellow American officer tells prosecutor Widmark that the objective is simply to "survive" and not let legal niceties like justice get in the way shows the moral ambiguity at the heart of the matter. There is an element of victor's justice, but a whole lot more pure evil exposed. Most victors don't dispense any justice, but even bringing the subject up shows a welcome even-handedness.

An outstanding film. There is an element of the obvious here and there, which is a reflection of this art form more than anything else, but also a surprisingly non-judgmental tone (yes, there is some irony in the title). I highly recommend this film.


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