Stanley Kramer’s second courtroom drama starring Spencer Tracy in as many years is mostly an actor’s tour de force, but surprisingly not for the film’s nominal stars, Tracy and Burt Lancaster. Both of these veterans step back and let a handful of others take center screen. The talent pool is so deep in this film that the fifth-billed actor, Maximilian Schell, took home a Best Actor Oscar, the deepest that award has gone into a film’s “bench.”
The film is a heavily fictionalized version of the actual Judges Trial during the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The four defendants were not part of the Nazi leadership, the architects of the “Final Solution,” nor were they concentration camp guards who personally fed Zyklon B into the gas chambers. With one exception, they were part of pre-Nazi German judiciary, who are accused of enforcing the laws that sent Jews to the concentration camps and allowed for the sterilization of political enemies.
The main defendant is Ernest Janning (Lancaster), who was world renowned as one of the authors of the Weimar Republic’s Constitution and a leading advocate of individual rights in post-World War I Germany. He’s represented by Hans Rolfe (Schell), a zealous young German lawyer.
Prosecuting the four judges is Colonel Lawson (Richard Widmark), an American officer who was among those who liberated the concentration camps, which has led to a form of tunnel vision as he vigorously pursues everyone he sees as even remotely responsible for the Holocaust.
Sitting in judgment is a panel of three judges led by Dan Haywood (Tracy), a folksy jurist from the backwoods of Maine. We meet him as moves, somewhat uncomfortably, into a mansion formerly owned by a German general. As a newcomer, he is our eyes into the process as his aide and others help him settle into his new job.
The political situation surrounding this trial is delicate. The war has been over for more than two years. The big Nazi fish have already been fried, so to speak, and America’s foreign policy is increasingly occupied by the growing Soviet threat. Suddenly, the goodwill of the German people is becoming more important than punishing a few remaining Nazis whose connection to the Holocaust is not quite as clear cut as, say Hermann Göring’s.
Widmark and Schell dominate the courtroom scenes as prosecutor and defense attorney pursue their agenda with equal intensity. While Col. Lawson has a bottomless need for vengeance for the atrocities he witnessed, Herr Rolfe is desperate to salvage what’s left of the German people’s dignity. He feels that the trials are starting to make it seem as if the entire German nation was responsible for the Holocaust. To that end, he will vigorously defend his client, Ernst Janning, even if Janning doesn’t want to mount a defense.
Most of Judge Haywood’s story takes place outside the courtroom. Inside, he’s reduced to a passive listener absorbing the testimony of others. Outside, he’s free to take a more active role, exploring the city and striking up a friendship with the former occupant of his home, Mrs. Berholt (Marlene Dietrich), the widow of a general convicted and executed in an earlier trial. The film floats the possibility that the general might have been the victim of overzealous prosecution by Col. Lawson.
I don’t know if the filmmakers meant it to be ironic that prominent Germans have been forced out of their homes by the victorious occupying army, an indignity frequently visited on the Jews during the Holocaust, but it would be consistent with the film’s willingness deal with thorny issues surrounding other nations’ complicity in the Nazi rise to power.
While the trial takes roughly eight months in film time, the courtroom scenes focus on two key cases from early in the Nazi era. The first involves a simple-minded baker named Rudolf Petersen (played with jittery perfection by Montgomery Clift) who was sterilized by order of a German court. Was it because he was retarded or because his family had ties to the communists? Was it an atrocity or, as Rolfe argues, a public service once endorsed by legendary American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes?
The second case involves the relationship of an elderly Jewish man and a young German woman, Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland, who’s about as far from the Kansas farm as she can get). The man was accused of sleeping with her, arrested, tried and executed. Despite the fact the trial was a show trial and a mockery, Rolfe defends his client by trying to show that the verdict was justified because there was some truth to the allegations. The ugly spectacle of the old wounds being opened being finally draws out the previously silent Janning, who takes the stand to make a statement. In a bravura speech that is vintage Lancaster, Janning seeks to explain but not excuse how a nation of decent people could have been caught up in the National Socialist fever.
Despite the clear evidence showing that the defendants subverted justice to the Nazi cause, there is pressure for leniency from the Americans as the trial plays out against the backdrop of the Berlin Airlift. One of the defendants, an unrepentant Nazi named Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer in a role miles removed from Col. Klink), gloats that the West’s confrontation with the Bolsheviks proves that Hitler had been right all along.
As a film, Judgment has its faults. The key roles of Haywood and Janning are thinly written, depending entirely on the gravitas of the actors in the roles. However, the film’s willingness to tackle difficult issues combined with a lightning-in-a-bottle performance by Maximilian Schell more than overcome any failures to make this required viewing for students of both history and the law.