Judgment at Nuremberg is twice the size of the concise, stirring and rewarding production on television’s Playhouse 90 early in 1959. A faster tempo by producer-director Stanley Kramer and more trenchant script editing would have punched up picture.
Abby Mann’s drama is set in Nuremberg in 1948, the time of the Nazi war crimes trials. It deals not with the trials of the more well-known Nazi leaders, but with members of the German judiciary who served under the Nazi regime.
The intense courtroom drama centers on two men: the presiding judge (Spencer Tracy) who must render a monumental decision, and the principal defendant (Burt Lancaster), at first a silent, brooding figure, but ultimately the one who rises to pinpoint the real issue and admit his guilt.
Where the stars enjoy greater latitude and length of characterization, such as in the cases of Tracy, Maximilian Schell and Richard Widmark (latter two as defense counsel and prosecutor, respectively), the element of personal identity does not interfere. But in the cases of those who are playing brief roles, such as Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift, the spectator has insufficient time to divorce actor from character.
Tracy delivers a performance of great intelligence and intuition. He creates a gentle, but towering, figure, compassionate but realistic, warm but objective. Schell repeats the role he originated, with electric effect, on the TV program, and again he brings to it a fierce vigor, sincerity and nationalistic pride. Widmark is effective as the prosecutor ultimately willing to compromise and soft-pedal his passion for stiff justice when the brass gives the political word.
Lancaster as the elderly, respected German scholar-jurist on trial for his however-unwilling participation in the Nazi legal machine never quite attains the cold, superior intensity that Paul Lukas brought to the part on TV. Marlene Dietrich is persuasive as the aristocratic widow of a German general hanged as a war criminal, but the character is really superfluous to the basic issue.
1961: Best Actor (Maximilian Schell), Adapted Screenplay.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Spencer Tracy), Supp. Actor (Montgomery Clift), Supp. Actress (Judy Garland), B&W Cinematography, B&W Costume Design, B&W Art Direction, Editing