SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 51: Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgement at Nuremberg: A Perspective
Jim Randall

My appreciation of this movie comes from the way Abby Mann took on the
theme of German guilt and accountability for the war crimes they committed. The
victors, of course, chose to put on the trials, and while there were problems with
how the trials were carried out, the idea of accountability was enshrined and
continues to this day in the International Courts at The Hague.

I appreciate the way the courtroom scenes were shot with the actors allowed
to give their speeches whole without a lot of editing. The camera perspective
moves around while the character speaks being admirable. I never saw the
Playhouse 90 version but I think the film version aheive a live feeling. The
intense courtroom drama centers on two men: the presiding judge (Spencer
Tracy) who must render a monumental decision, and the principal defendant
(Burt Lancaster), at first a silent, brooding figure, but ultimately the one who rises
to pinpoint the real issue and admit his guilt.

Tracy delivers a performance of great intelligence and intuition. He creates a
gentle, but towering, figure, compassionate but realistic, warm but objective.
Schell repeats the role he originated, with electric effect, on Playhouse90, and
again he brings to it a fierce vigor, sincerity and nationalistic pride. Widmark is
effective as the prosecutor ultimately willing to compromise and soft-pedal his
passion for stiff justice when the brass gives the political word.

Lancaster, the elderly, respected German scholar-jurist is on trial for his
participation in the Nazi legal machine. A pivotal moment is when he makes his
statement to the court admiting his and the German nations complicity in the
madness. Madness it was, as Albert Speer wrote: "I was not choosing the
NSDAP, but becoming a follower of Hitler, whose magnetic force had reached
out to me the first time I saw him and had not, thereafter, released me."(1) The
whole nation fell into it. A psychologist, Mattias Desmet (Professor Clinical
Psychology, Ghent University) (2), has termed it “mass formation psychosis.” As
Hannah Arendt states, “totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a
generalized obsession with science, the belief in an artificially created paradise:
“Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and
transform the nature of man.” Sound familiar in our current context? Obsession
and psychosis characterize the behavior of the whole nation during the Nazi
period. To illustrate the absolute denial that whole sections of German society
were in, Herr and Frau Halbestad denied knowing about the death camps and
being political. Marlene Dietrich is persuasive as the aristocratic widow of a
German general hanged as a war criminal, but the character is really superfluous
to the basic issue which is justice for the victims and a warning to future tyrants
that the world will hold them accountable.

Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland portray two victims of the Nazi period.
Both give outstanding performances. Clift kept forgetting his lines but the
stumbling delivery was left in because it reinforced his character. Irene Hoffman
fought off Rolfe’s cross examination when he attempted to discredit her.

As the story proceeds some nuance develops. Frau Bertholt takes the Judge
in hand to try to influence him towards the German people being innocent on
some level. Towards the end the American and Allied commanders are
convinced the Soviets are going to attack West Germany. The Americans, British
and French suddenly realize they need the Germans on their side. They put
pressure on the judges to be lenient. In the end Judge Haywood decides to find
them guilty and give the four defendants long sentences. Side note: the four were
released within 6 years as were many of the guilty from the first trial.

The film was released in Berlin in 1961. The audience reaction was subdued
and left in silence. The nation was not prepared to face the atrocity of Nazi
Germany. That would come later.


  1. Speer, Albert 1969 “Inside the Third Reich” Orion Books

  2. Desmet, Mattias (6/16/2022) “The Psychology of Totalitarianism” Chelsea
    Green Publishing

  3. Arendt, Hannah – Died 4 December 1975 (aged 69) Her entire body of

  4. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's
    Berlin is a  2011   non-fiction  book by  Erik Larson . [1]
    Larson recounts the career of the American Ambassador to Germany,  William
    Dodd , particularly the years 1933 to 1937 when he and his family, including
    his daughter  Martha , lived in Berlin. The Ambassador, who earned his Ph.D.
    in Leipzig 40 years earlier; and, at the time of his appointment, was head of
    the History Department at the University of Chicago initially hoped that
    Germany's new Nazi government would grow more moderate, including in its
    persecution of the Jews. [2]  Martha, separated from her husband and in the
    process of divorce, became caught up in the glamor and excitement of
    Berlin's social scene and had a series of liaisons, most of them sexual,
    including among them Gestapo head  Rudolf Diels  and Soviet attaché and
    secret agent Boris Vinogradov. She defended the regime to her skeptical
    friends. Within months of their arrival, the family became aware of the evils of
    Nazi rule. Dodd periodically protested against it. President  Roosevelt  was
    pleased with Dodd's performance while most State Department officials,
    suspicious of his lack of background in their area of expertise, as well as his
    inability to finance embassy activities from his own wealth, found him
    undiplomatic and idiosyncratic.
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia