Catching Up: “Judgement at Nuremberg”

IMG_0295-0.PNGClassic films aren’t just classics and great because they were made so long ago. No, there’s other aspects to consider. Of course there’s the cast, whether they were bigger names in Hollywood or not, and subject matter. The subject matter makes all the difference for some and even helps them stand out years later.

The United Artists film “Judgement at Nuremberg”, is clearly one film that can leave an impression long after the credits have rolled.

This historical trial drama stars Spencer Tracy (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Inherit the Winid”), Burt Lancaster (“Elmer Gentry”, “From Here to Eternity”), Richard Widmark (“Coma (1978)”, “Kiss of Death”), Marlene Dietrich (“Witness for the Prosecution”, “Morocco”), Maximilian Schell (“Julia”, “The Man in the Glass Booth”), Judy Garland (“A Child is Waiting”, “A Star is Born (1954)”), Montgomery Clift (“From Here to Eternity”, “A Place in the Sun”), and William Shatner (“Hot in Cleveland”, “Escape from Planet Earth”).

The film was directed by Stanley Kramer (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “The Caine Mutiny”) and written by Abby Mann (“Ship of Fools”, “Indictment: The McMartin Trial”).

The film was originally released on Dec. 19, 1961.

The film would later go on to be nominated for 11 Academy Awards; winning two, and six Golden Globe Nominations; winning two, among many other nominations and wins.

It’s not often that you can find considerably older films that can be just as captivating as when they first came out. I found this fact fascinating, particularly since this is a film that’s over three hours, and of late, I haven’t found much success with those. Many new ways of thinking of the events in this film came to me and had me going for a bit afterwards.

So, the basic plot line is that this is a trial set during the Nuremberg trials, which occurred a few years after World War II had ended. These were for those being charged with war crimes. Given that this occurred so long ago, one would think that this might not be all that interesting or something that could engage a viewer. I can only imagine what it was like in 1961, when all of this was by far fresher than now. And that’s the other reason I found watching this film a good experience, is that I get a better opportunity to understand what these trials were probably like. I might like learning history, but I’m nowhere near being someone who absolutely loves learning everything historical. Today, you don’t get films like this at all. I think the last time there was a film about Nuremberg was with the mini-series “Nuremberg” 14 years ago. Unless it was a documentary or book, one is probably not going to find a film depicting these trials in any way, shape, or form. Unless you are a history lover, or student of history, knowing that these trials occurred, might be harder to do. That and length of time practically makes this short bit of history a footnote.

With this film itself, I didn’t just get a chance to learn more about these trials, but witness some good acting that helped to fuel the drama. Every singe actor was in pretty good form, given that these roles are not at all typical types of characters. To see these actors, at that time and in this type of film, is nothing short of astounding. Many of them didn’t need to do all that much to embody their character, and when they were on screen, I couldn’t look away. Some, however, stood out a lot.

First there’s Schell’s character, who’s the defense attorney. The interesting thing is, I never got the feeling that I should hate him at all. Not even dislike him. There’s an instant understanding of why he’s doing this. So, you watch him, and it’s not simply the legal speak or the trying to object and put on a good defense, it’s just Schell himself, coupled with those things. His character is also very passionate about the defense he puts on. When he gets into the speeches for his client, in a way, he presents a very powerful argument, whether you like it or not. The entire film presents like a conversation between various people with many good points being made. A lot to think on. And, this is why I feel Schell really stole the show. He stood out more than a lot of the other actors.

I feel some need to mention Garland in here too. First, this was really her first major dramatic role before here death and that’s really unfortunate. While she may have not had that much screen time, what she brought was only able to add to all the drama. I also believed her character was this devastated and didn’t want to go through with this testimony, but she knew she needed to. Second, and this is just a note, it’s that she probably could’ve done so much with actual dramatic roles. I’m not trying to say she could’ve lived longer, although I’m not not say that. Had she had this kind of work far sooner, there could’ve been a whole lot more to love of what she gave to the entertainment industry.

Dietrich sadly was just uninteresting. She was interesting, mostly, because she wasn’t actually playing a good character. She wasn’t outright evil, but she certainly had enough points against her where you should be headed towards the disliking her opinion. The uninteresting part, for me, came from how she really didn’t seem to have an important, or necessary, reason for being around. In fact, that’s actually how she came to be interacting with Tracy’s character at all, by chance. This, fortunately helped allow for Tracy to have character growth and not just be some high profile actor playing a judge. He had other moments too, but Dietrich was only really relevant for that. I couldn’t really be excited for her presence because of this.

I was amazed at the majority of the cinematography. What Ernest Laszlo (“Logan’s Run”, “Ship of Fools”), did not only help give you continued views of the courtroom, which is what I particularly loved of his work for this film, but also allowed you to stay and see all of the parties at various moments. There were constant shots that just had continuous movement. Not completely relying on back and forth shots, allowed for the action to move forward in a fluid manner. Surprisingly, it didn’t just seem like a creative way to film, but a way to get me to be really involved in the courtroom drama. Not something, that in many courtroom scenes or films, that’s done all that well or creatively.

The usage of black & white, which may have just been cheaper or a preference, was perfect! Everything was so clean and crisp. I also think I just enjoyed the cooler aspect of black & white, as opposed to how drastic each shot would’ve been with all the color that could’ve been. It also goes so far as to help make all the characters all the more captivating on screen. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Partially why I love black & white photography in general.

I also, now that I think on it, must include a mention of certain film that could be considered bad taste to have included. At the time, it may have been. It may have been shocking too. But, there’s a previous film that had already used actual footage. This film, at some point, used footage actually shot after the war of conditions and the dead, from camps and it was… disturbing. While it never gets less disturbing it provides a huge insight, especially if you’ve never seen any actual footage from that time. I felt that with the inclusion of this footage, it brought the drama of the film and the experience to a much different level.

For me, there’s a love of the older, commonly known as “classic” films. It may just be my appreciation of what came before and visibly inspired the films that have come since. Now, with this film, I can appreciate even more what the films content and message is all about. How it does more than just serve as the driving force in the overall story. While this film may have been quite long and moved slower than I would’ve liked, there was still enough going on to keep my attention the entire time. For a film to move me, beyond an emotional level, and into a process of thought, then I must believe that the film has gone above and beyond what it was meant to do.


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