Does Judgment at Nuremberg Accurately Depict the Nazi War Crimes Trial?

By Gonshak, Henry | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Does Judgment at Nuremberg Accurately Depict the Nazi War Crimes Trial?


Gonshak, Henry, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The year 2007 was the sixtieth anniversary of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, in which the victorious Allies prosecuted high officials in the Nazi regime for what were labeled "crimes against humanity." Discussing the contemporary significance of the trials, Bradley F. Smith writes in Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg, "Only now are historians gradually coming to realize ... that Nuremberg was not only a source of historical material but was a vital and absorbing aspect of contemporary history. A moment's reflection suggests that many of the significant forces that shaped the European and American transition from war to peace and then to cold war appeared in microcosm during the trial. The changes that World War II and its aftermath produced in American values and policy show up in striking clarity at Nuremberg.... The trial deserves our attention even more because it was a crucial episode in modern man's effort to grapple with the responsibility of leaders for unleashing war and causing mass atrocities" (xvi).

The concluding of this anniversary is a good time to reassess the best-known American film about the trials-Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer, which appeared in theaters in 1961. Rather than depicting the most prominent of these trials, which prosecuted such high-level members of Hitler's inner circle as Hermann Goring, the film focuses on a later trial-transpiring after these more sensational prosecutions were over-which indicted German judges because their courtroom verdicts furthered the Third Reich's aims by upholding Nazi law. Such a focus is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the film misses a chance to explore the guilt of those most directly responsible for the creation and implementation of the Holocaust. But, on the other hand, it succeeds in dramatizing how responsibility for the Shoah and other Nazi atrocities extends far beyond the Fuhrer's chief advisors into the social institutions, civil as well as military, which composed the fabric of German society under Hitler.

Judgment at Nuremberg was not American pop culture's first attempt to address the trials. That honor belonged to a 1959 television program of the same name broadcast on the distinguished dramatic series Playhouse 90. Based on a script by Abby Mann (who had also composed the film's screenplay), it featured a stellar cast for television including Claude Rains, Paul Lukas, and the German actor Maximilian Schell (the only cast member who also appeared in the film, playing the same role of the young German defense lawyer, for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar). The television program was produced by Herbert Brodkin, who would later be the producer of the influential 1970s TV miniseries, Holocaust: The Story of the Family Weiss. The program covered much the same ground as the movie would, including identical judges, prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses, but at roughly one-third the length of the cinematic version. As a result, Gavin Lambert writes in a contemporary review in Film Quarterly, "Not surprisingly, in a program of less than ninety minutes, some of the characterizations seemed a bit thin; but for much of the time the show worked as dramatic journalism" (52). Whether due to these characterization problems, or because the program appeared on the small screen at a time when television was still in its infancy, the show, despite its strengths, had nowhere near the influence of Kramer's film.

By the time he turned to Judgment at Nuremberg, the maverick director Stanley Kramer already had a reputation in Hollywood as "king of the message movie." His previous films-The Defiant Ones (1958), touching on racial intolerance through the story of two escaped convicts, On the Beach (1959), imagining a post-nuclearholocaust world, and Inhent the Wind (1960), dramatizing the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial over the teaching of evolution in public schools-had all tackled controversial social and political topics in a way that exhibited a willingness to challenge the ingrained timidity of the major studios when it came to dramatizing contentious subject matter. …

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