Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Challenging the "Hollywoodization" of the Holocaust: Reconsidering Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Challenging the "Hollywoodization" of the Holocaust: Reconsidering Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Article excerpt

One of the most prominent films made by producer-director Stanley Kramer from an original screenplay by Abby Mann, Judgment at Nuremberg premiered in West Berlin in December 1961 at a pivotal moment in the history of both Holocaust remembrance and Cold War hostilities. West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt offered a powerful introduction. "I consider the world premiere of the film Judgment at Nuremberg in the Congress Hall in Berlin as an important political event," Brandt contended. "It will probably be difficult for some of us to watch and hear this film. But we will not shut our eyes to this."1 A fictional film based on factual events, Judgment at Nuremberg depicted the trial of four judges for their crimes during the Nazi regime. Set in 1948, the film nonetheless related closely to events in 1961, chiefly the trial of Adolf Eichmann and the building of the Berlin Wall. In a striking instance of historical simultaneity, the announcement of Eichmann's guilty verdict and death sentence coincided with Judgment at Nuremberg's premiere. Despite Brandt's introduction, the premiere's West German audience did not receive the film well, and German critics believed Kramer crassly exploited the contemporary political situation to further his film's promotion and profitability. It was "bad to premiere the Kramer film 'right in the shadow of the wall,'" they argued.2

In the United States Judgment at Nuremberg also did poorly at the box office and with reviewers equally convinced of Kramer's exploitation of a profound topic. Gavin Lambert labeled the film "an All-Star Concentration Camp Drama, with Special Guest Victim Appearances," a devastating characterization made worse when famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael repeated it in her summation of Kramer's career a few years later.3 John Gillett called Kramer "the self-appointed conscience of the American cinema" but contended that "Kramer the resourceful showman" always trumped "Kramer the social thinker."4 For Time magazine, Kramer "arrogantly exceeded his judicial warrant" and "shrewdly timed the release of his movie to coincide with the reading of the judgment in the trial of Adolf Eichmann."5 That the film's premiere date had been set back in February, before the Eichmann trial had even started, was overlooked in the rush to condemn Kramer for sacrificing good taste and taking unseemly advantage to benefit his movie.

To be sure, Kramer was a Hollywood filmmaker who made films for com- mercial release and popular consumption, but with Judgment at Nuremberg he and his screenwriter, Abby Mann, also felt a responsibility to history. "I am Jewish," Kramer recalled. "I wanted to film Judgment at Nuremberg because those trials said something that I didn't think the world had fully grasped." A wave of neo-Nazi vandalism against synagogues in West Germany in late 1959 reinforced Kramer's concerns. The film's portrayal of "past history," he announced at the start of production in 1960, "is especially timely . . . in light of the neo-nazism now becoming apparent."6 Judgment at Nuremberg was not Kramer's first film to take on the subject of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust, however. The Juggler (Edward Dmytryk, 1953), which he produced, concerned a German Jewish concentration camp survivor who migrates to the new nation of Israel. For Kramer, the film was a "moving portrait of the horror that tortures so many survivors."7 Also Jewish, Mann felt great compassion for the victims of the Nazi Final Solution, which motivated his original Judgment at Nuremberg script for television's Playhouse 90 (begun in 1957 and aired in 1959), upon which he based his Oscar-winning movie screenplay. "I wanted to pierce the lie; the big lie [in Germany] was, 'we didn't know about it.'"8 The two men later collaborated on Ship of Fools (1965), based on Katherine Anne Porter's 1962 novel and adapted by Mann for the screen. The story of passengers aboard a cruise ship destined for Germany in the early 1930s, the film portrayed the world's lack of resistance to the "advancing tide of Nazism" and the exterminationist nature of Nazi anti-Semitism. …

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