I was 18 when Judgement at Nuremberg was released, but I first watched it a couple of nights ago. It is a serious film about the second world war. For my generation this was the greatest event in our lives. It casts its shadow over the whole of the twentieth century. Just think of what it signified: the wholesale slaughter of six million Jews, the dawn of the nuclear age, aerial bombing on a vast scale, the subjection of millions to communism, the emergence of America as the greatest power the world has ever seen, the jet engine, rockets, penicillin, the emergence of democracy in Japan, the end of the British and French Empires, the discrediting of Eugenics.
The film is a major production that was nominated for 12 Oscars and awarded two. It starred Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximillian Schell, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland and even a very young William Shattner. It explores the question of human responsibility. It is a very Calvinist film.
Briefly, a retired circuit judge (Tracy) from Maine is called on to chair a tribunal examining the responsibility of German Judges for the implementation of Nazi laws that required the sterilization and later the extermination of Jews, the mentally handicapped and other 'socially undesirables'. Burt Lancaster plays the chief defendant, a senior and respected German jurist who helped frame the Wiemar Constitution and had written many books on jurisprudence. His role has very few lines apart from one central and long speech accepting culpability. Richard Widmark is the prosecuting counsel, and American army colonel who led the group that first entered Dachau. He is wild eyed and determined for revenge. He likes to show the film of what was discovered at Dachau and by British troops at Belsen at every trial. Maximillian Schell plays a German advocate who is defending counsel. Darkly handsome with a winning smile, he was a wise choice for the Oscar that year. He seeks to exculpate the judges by declaring that they were simply being patriotic; upholding the laws of their country. They had no responsibility for framing the laws, but had to do their duty in enforcing them. His shock of black hair means that he has some resemblance to Adolf Hitler, and he adopts some of Hitler's verbal tricks, so that as you feels yourself warming to him you also begin to realise how so many Germans fell for Hitler.
In order to justify the judges actions he is forced to re-examine two old cases. The first concerns the forced sterilisation of a common laborer for familial mental retardation. Montgomery Clift plays the part of the victim. Although he conveys the anguish of his situation, he is unbelievable as a half-wit. As a result we see it as an injustice as an ordinary working man is sterilised, but had he appeared less intelligent would he not have got the audience asking - well, perhaps he should be sterilized? For Schell demonstrates that the idea of Eugenics was not a German one. He could well have quoted from Francis Galton, but in fact goes to Oliver Wendall Holmes and the Virginian Constitutional amendments. I still hear people bemoaning the fact that the intelligentsia have too few babies and the less clever working class too many.
The second case involved a young Aryan girl who had supposedly been seduced by an old Jew, who had been executed for his crime. The girl was played by Judy Garland in a performance that finally unstrung her from the rainbow. Schell harries her to admit that she really was the old Jews mistress, but she continues to deny it - he was an old family friend. Strictly speaking Garland is too old for the role, but it is still a great performance and it is her anguish that prompts the Burt Lancaster character to make a statement that admits his guilt.
The film is set in 1948, the year that Czechoslovakia was taken over by the communists and the year of the Berlin airlift. The Americans were under pressure to establish West Germany as a friendly power and a bulwark against communism. Pressure is put on the old judge to be nice to the Germans - as a senior officer puts it the call of patriotism is more important than legal niceties. But this is exactly what the trial is about, what the film is about and why it is so relevant for today.
Some sections of society ask our judges to be merciful. That is wrong. Our judges must first and foremost be just. Convicting the guilty is as important as clearing the innocent. In the IG Farber case, running at the same time, the defendants were sometimes acquitted but even is convicted received token sentences.
The judge convicts the judges and hands out life sentences. Sentencing is part of the verdict. A token sentence says you are guilty but not very. There is a place for mercy, but that is in the hands of the Sovereign. Only he or she can dispense it.
Schell seeks to lessen the crime of the judges by saying we are all guilty. The Vatican in signing the Concordat in 1933, the Russians in signing the non-aggression pact, the American industrialists who traded with Germany, those who stood by as Germany invaded the Saar, Austria and the Sudetenland, and even Winston Churchill who wrote to the Times saying that in order to resist the German aggression, Britain needed a leader with the determination and leadership qualities of an Adolf Hitler.
As the Spencer Tracy character seeks to understand the German people he talks to servants and aristocrats, all of whom knew nothing of what was happening in the 'camps'. He doesn't believe a word of it. He accepts that there is a measure of guilt everywhere, but that doesn't lessen the guilt of the judges.
In a final confrontation with the Burt Lancaster character, the convicted judge pleads that he did not realise how it would end up, with so many millions dying. Tracy replies that it ended up like this the moment you sent an innocent man for execution.
Calvinist? Because it insists that everyone is guilty, and each is responsible for his own guilt. The pass mark is not lowered just because the standard is so low.