The piercing gunfire of Normandy and imminent terror of Blitzkrieg are a million miles away from a temperate courtroom in Nuremberg. But the horror is still there, the elephant in the room, and has never seemed closer.
Judgement at Nuremberg masterfully does through words what most World War II epics can only dream of showing through pictures and the newly remastered print lets the filmmaking breathe in an otherwise claustrophobic mire of post-war gloom.
The stark monochrome feels apt and immediate rather than aged; the camera swooping and circling around the courtroom anxiously, patiently surveying each person and every crevice on their face.
For a majority of the film’s epic three-hour runtime, we are secluded to the courtroom. But this isn’t the landscape or setting the film wants us to explore. It’s the minutia, the body language, the wrinkles on the forehead and emotion in each character’s eyes. We are present alongside them, we have walked through the witness stand and are privy to the Nuremberg trials, a seemingly inaccessible or, at least, less focused on aspect of WWII.
And it would fall apart if the performances didn’t captivate and the cinematography didn’t deliver. But they do…in abundance.
The daunting runtime gives the impression that Judgement at Nuremberg is a war epic. In many ways it is, but it’s so much more finely balanced than that.
We see American judge Daniel Haywood (Spencer Tracy) preside over the trial of four German judges accused of legalising Nazi atrocities. It has been three years since the most important Nazi leaders have been tried, but as graphic accounts of sterilisation and murder are recounted in the courtroom and the spectre of Cold War looms large, Haywood is forced into making the most difficult decision of his career. The balance comes from argument, tone and pacing. The film itself doesn’t feel epic, but the subject matter does.
This isn’t your typical three-hour film to while away a Sunday afternoon, it requires pause and attention. Harrowing as it may be, we are thrown into the trials almost without warning and are presented the cases for both the prosecution and defence.
We are shown the levelled ground of Nuremberg as Dan Haywood meanders through the destruction; we have witnessed the devastation first-hand. We are unflinchingly shown real footage of liberated Nazi Death Camps – ground-breaking at the time, the first of its kind. We view the city through the lens of reparation, despair, but with a mutual will to overcome atrocity and carry on with life. We are forced to assess the value of compromise in politically uncertain times, the concept of shared-guilt, redemption, forgiveness and holding people to account.
Strands of moral dilemmas are thrown at us, tangled and with seemingly no end in sight. WWII was an exceptional event, we don’t need a film to reinforce that, but this perfectly frames it as the atrocious, enigmatic and repugnant clusterfuck it truly was.
That’s just the plot.
The cinematography is tense but choreographed. We amble through the courtroom as if through the monochrome lens of Wings of Desire. But there is no wonderment here as there was there. We’re here to witness something, to see men in reflections of glass, to see lawyers’ impassioned speeches reverberated in the faces of each attendee. We are here to analyse, question. But the camera doesn’t offer any answers. It mirrors the trial itself, wandering and lost, where morality is uncertain and seemingly lost. It’s a handsome portrait, though.
Look, not every 5-star film is a masterpiece and I’m not going to claim Judgement at Nuremberg is. I’m sure there are people who would disagree and I wouldn’t begrudge them that, but I’m not too sure. What it is, though, is a perfectly executed courtroom drama where the subject matter is incomprehensible, the cinematography beautiful and the plot tight.
The cast is eye-watering – Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and William Shatner, to name but a few – and it garnered two Academy Awards after being nominated for eleven, Maximilian Schell quite rightly winning for an electric performance (not that I’ve seen many of the other contenders from 1961, mind).
But what makes this unique: it’s the thinking man’s WWII film. It allows us to visualise the horrors of the war purely through soliloquy, speech and language. It doesn’t patronise, nor does it over-dramatise, but it gives us headspace and time for reflection and how many WWII films can say that?
Dir: Stanley Kramer
Scr: Abby Mann
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner
Prd: Stanley Kramer, Philip Langler
DOP: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Ernest Gold
Run Time: 179 mins
Judgement at Nuremberg is available now on Blu-ray.