That singular quality of certain films to attract violent criticism and equally strong support, is not a mark of greatness; it is, rather, an indication that technical or stylistic innovations have been strikingly exploited, or that an extreme statement has been made. Citizen Kane and L'Avventura, a classic and a mediocre trump-up, fall into the first category. Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux and Stanley Kramer's new work fall into the latter.
It is indeed significant that American critics have found Judgment at Nuremberg "extreme." Kramer commented, "it is not the attitude of the Germans that I have tried to emphasize in the film. It is the attitude of the Americans--the judge and the prosecuting attorney and all the others...."
To accomplish this, he turns the presiding Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) into an active figure, avoiding the conventional image of justice in a trial-drama: aloof if not passive. Haywood, whom Tracy plays with proper naivete and the suspicious honesty of a Maine Yankee, is trying the case of Ernst Janning, a once-eminent judge who bowed to the Nazi definition of justice, and three other members of the Hitler judiciary. As the film unfolds these four figures in the dock represent varying levels of recalcitrance. Janning ultimately acknowledges his guilt; but at the other extreme, Emil Hahn continues to belch up protestations of innocence, claiming the Cold War as his vindication.
At the outset of the trial, Janning is depicted as dumb, insensitized brute who will not recognize the tribunal's authority. In contrast, his brilliant young attorney, Oskar Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), is lively, handsome and sympathetic. It requires no great perception to see him as the symbol of young Germany, trying to assert its innocence and restore all it lost in the war. (Abby Mann's novel, of which the film is remarkably true adaptation, describes Rolfe's feelings this way: "Five bloody years to make up for. He had sat in the Nuremberg courtroom for the last year and a half knowing this was the place to make up for them.")
Rolfe's line of defense is familiar: he sets forth a mythical combination of patriotism and ignorance of the consequences, to justify Janning and millions of others. Rolfe recalls: "the statement, 'my country right or wrong' was made by a great American patriot. It is no less true for a German patriot...." then, "it is not only Ernst Janning who is on trial here. It is the German people."
The real case for Ernst Janning's innocence, as Rolfe knows, can be won only by proving the veracity and legality of his decisions. And so he calls back to the stand two people convicted under the Nazis: Rudolf Petersen, who was 'legally' castrated under the sterilization decrees, and Irene Hoffman, whose friendship had cost an elderly Jewish man his life. As Rolfe begins retrying these people, Janning is stirred into a recognition and awareness of his own complicity.
Schell plays Rolfe with such drive that the terms of his investigation are accepted. The Nazi premises are forgotten, and the issue becomes one of Petersen's intelligence quotient rather than the morality of castrating the children of the regime's opponents.
With Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), Rolfe extends his tactic until he becomes a ranting inquisitor. Janning can take it no longer, and demands to make a statement: he would rather condemn himself than watch this young man turn into a Nazi on his behalf. Janning's voice drowns out Rolfe's protests: "My defense counsel would have you believe that we were not aware of concentration camps. Not aware? Where were we?
"Where were we when Hitler began shrieking his hate in the Reichstag?...Where were we when every village in Germany had a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children who were being carried off to God knows where? Where were we when they cried out into the night for us?"
Emil Hahn, the great anti-Bolshevik, leaps us at this point and calls Janning a traitor. As a director, Kramer thus bypasses no opportunity to remind America that crusading Anti-Communism has been used before as a means of encroaching on political freedom. Many liberal intellectuals have discounted the seriousness of the film because it relies on Hollywood's popular technique and personnel (Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift turn in superb performances). These people should realize that there is a wealth of professional film-making skill in Hollywood, capable of more power and subtlety than any other cinema in the world.
Judgment at Nurenberg, unfortunately, is marred by several faults; above all, it is wordy. This is not to say that the writing is wearing or that Mann is guilty of extraneous detail, but that the arguments involved require considerable development. They are important ones, and would be harmed by oversimplification.
A second flaw in Kramer's technique is the studied cuteness of his syncopated scene changes, which jump from a key word or object at the end of one segment to the same word or object at the start of the next. Coincidence is not a logical nexus, merely a clever one, and it's grating after you get the joke.
In the final analysis, this film's value will rest on the truth of its political assertions. America's crucial ally does in fact have military, judiciary, and educational systems that are staffed largely by ex-Nazis.
We have staked a great deal on our belief in their expressed commitment to democratic ideals; whether justified by military necessity or not, America has taken a risk. And in questioning its wisdom, Kramer is expressing concern, not heresy. Truth, after all, cannot be assessed merely in terms of relevance to the Cold War.