The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Judgment at Nuremberg

Even with Germany surrendering in May of 1945 and Japan surrendering a few months later in August, the war and conflict of WWII would continue on for years. As victors, the Allies presided over a series of tribunals meant to bring people to justice for the atrocities committed during the war, many of these trials having to do with the Holocaust and execution of POW's. These trials ended in extensive sentencing, both in terms of the death penalty and life-long prison sentences.

Less than 15 years removed from these tribunals, Stanley Kramer assembled a remarkable cast to tell the story of one of the actual Nuremberg trials in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg. What's amazing about this movie is its honesty and frankness in dealing with the subject at hand, a touchy one at that in talking about the Holocaust. Kramer presents evidence, lets the characters tell their stories, and then makes a brave choice. He presents an option for you as a viewer to make up his/her own mind. What did these men on trial deserve? It's up to you.

Arriving in Germany, Maine district court judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is preparing for the biggest trial he's ever presided over. It's 3 years since the end of the war, and four German judges (including Burt Lancaster) are on trial for their actions during WWII and the years leading up to it. Leading the prosecution is Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), a WWII veteran who's prosecuted many of the German war criminals since the close of the war. His opponent on the defense is a intelligent, fiery German lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), who must present an incredibly difficult case that maybe even he does not believe.

Set almost entirely in a courtroom at Germany's Palace of Justice -- with a few quick detours -- Kramer's courtroom drama works as a series of linked vignettes dealing with one topic. Whole segments could be removed from the movie as a whole and still be worth watching on their own. At over 3 hours long, 'Nuremberg' is never rushed or too fast-paced with long, lingering shots from the camera as the testimony unfolds. Kramer allows his cast to get all the attention with only a few moments of in-your-face style from behind the camera, like an extreme zoom to a close-up of someone's face. It's a remarkable movie heavy on the dialogue that won an Oscar for its writing.

These courtroom vignettes would have worked as a stand alone, but assemble them together and you've got a classic. Two witnesses are called to the stand in two of the movie's strongest segments, Montgomery Clift as a German man forced to undergo a sterilization surgery during the war and Judy Garland as a young German woman involved in a controversial court ruling that Lancaster's Emil Janning ruled on. Both were nominated for their supporting roles -- more on that later -- in what amount to one or two scene appearances. Clift is absolutely heartbreaking (check out his testimony/part HERE) and nearly brought me to tears, and Garland is equally effective. The powers that be only gave them Oscar nominations, not the win, with best supporting actor and actress going to West Side Story's George Chakiris and Rita Moreno.

It blew my mind when I read that. I realize West Side Story is a classic -- never seen it myself -- but Clift and Garland provide some of the most effective, moving parts I've ever seen, and they got snubbed. Definitely two of the biggest such snubs in Oscar history. A bigger issue is that just about everyone in 'Nuremberg' deserved an Oscar win with Schell taking home the Best Actor. Schell has an impossible task in front of him, defending four men who helped send hundreds and maybe thousands of people to their deaths in the concentration camps. It's hard to side with his defense, but it makes you think. Provoking thought concerning something as inherently evil as the Holocaust is remarkable in itself.

Where else to start with this huge cast? Each star is given their moment to shine and not a one disappoints. Clift's testimony is early on and starts the ball rolling, and the momentum just keeps on building. Lancaster is silent for much of the movie, just a stoic presence in the dock, until he has an outburst and then gets his chance on the stand (watch it HERE). Tracy's world weary judge who's been voted out of his position back home has the biggest decision of them all, how to judge these men. And with bigger things at play, his decision is even tougher. His summation is a simple, beautifully effective description of the situation. Widmark gets the flashier part as the prosecuting attorney and makes him human, a veteran who was among the troops who liberated the concentration camps and now tries to understand the horrors and atrocities he saw. If that wasn't enough, Marlene Dietrich has a supporting role as a German widow.

The tribunal is making a judgment on these four men, but Kramer's movie explores more than just that. It is brought up several times that Germany and the German people are on trial too. On a much bigger level, 'Nuremberg' explores the Holocaust, human actions, and morality. How could people do such horrible things to another? Wouldn't they have to know they were doing something wrong? The good of the country, yes, or so they believe, but at what cost? One extended segment has Widmark on the stand showing film of the liberation of the camps as a silent court watches from their seats.  It's startling in 2010 to see that footage, much less 50 years ago in 1962.

A perfect example of how powerful a movie can be with a combination of acting and story with strong direction. Performances from a long list of Hollywood heavyweights -- Tracy, Lancaster, Schell, Clift, Garland, Dietrich and Widmark -- and a story dealing with an impossible subject make this a must-see and a true classic.

Judgment at Nuremberg <----trailer (1961): ****/****

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