Sometimes the only way tackle a massive story or moment in history is to go massive with everything. Massive cast of massive names, massive running time, massive melodrama, and massive button pushing by turning the tables on seemingly inarguable, presumed truths. If you want massive, you get it with Judgment at Nuremberg.
Arriving in Germany in 1948, Spencer Tracey is Chief Judge Dan Haywood. The major Nazi leaders have all been tried, or managed to kill themselves before facing trial. All that’s left now are the professionals, working people like doctors and lawyers, people who were only following orders. One of those people is Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), defended by proud German and passionate lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell). While technically not responsible for any crimes, it’s highly possible that Janning’s rulings as judge during the years of Nazi rule resulted in the executions of many innocents.
The courtroom scenes in the early sections aren’t dominated by the two major stars at all. In fact, Tracy and Lancaster are relegated to observers for the most part. Instead, it’s all about Rolfe and his prosecuting opposite, Colonel Tad Lawson, played by Richard Widmark. They constantly one up each other for vitriol, passion, anger and strategic argument manoeuvring. All the while, the more heated their confrontations become, the more similar they are revealed to be in their dedication to the legal process.
It’s obvious from the second that Spencer Tracy appears on screen that his character of Chief Judge Dan Haywood is the ultimate good guy. He’s appalled by the damage done to the German city by the allies during the war, he feels embarrassed of the luxury he’s forced to live in while there, he’s quick to befriend every German he meets, including Marelene Dietrich as the widow of a German war criminal, and assure them that he doesn’t blame any of them for what Hitler and his cronies did during the war. Had anyone else played this character, he might seem too perfect and fake, but Spencer Tracy just had that kind, wise old man look to him, that means he sells it. I believe Dan Haywood was this great man because I believe Spencer Tracy was.
All this, plus cameos from Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift and William Shatner, and it’s obvious that Judgment at Nuremberg wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Director Stanley Kramer really threw absolutely everything he had at this thing and for the most part it works.
While it turns some preconceptions on their heads, it never shies away from the reality of what went down during the war. In a movie surrounded by amazing actors given amazing work to do, Richard Widmark may be the stand out, based purely on one monologue, spoken over horrendous concentration camp footage.
That also highlights the greatest triumph of Judgment at Nuremberg. It never attempts to water down what went down, but it never seems overbearing either. Lancaster gives his character a kind of dignity, Tracy gives his an empathy that never becomes too high and mighty, and everyone else holds their own against these two. Even at over three hours, it never feels too long or laboured, and that all comes down to the actors and their performances. Every single one of them, even Shatner.