#400) Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)


#400) Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

OR “The Tribunal Has Spoken”

Directed by Stanley Kramer

Written by Abby Mann. Based on his teleplay.

Class of 2013

As always, I am not your definitive guide to world history, in this case the Nuremberg trials and the aftermath of World War II. I’m just here to watch the movie, but I encourage you to learn more about what some have called “the greatest trial in history”.

The Plot: “Judgment at Nuremberg” is a fictional account of the Nuremberg trials, specifically the Judges’ trials that charged the officials who upheld Hitler’s eugenics practice in Nazi Germany. American Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is brought in as chief judge for the case, which prosecutor Col. Lawson (Richard Widmark) considers open-and-shut. German defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) makes the argument that the rest of the world is equally guilty of ignoring Hitler’s rise, and accused judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) maintains that the Germans went along with Hitler out of fear and patriotism. There’s many a complex shade of gray in this courtroom drama, but Stanley Kramer gets his message across in the end.

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights the film’s message regarding “the value of a single human being”, and details the film’s Oscar wins. The only superlative states that the film boasts “fine performances from its all-star cast.”

But Does It Really?: I’m surprised it took 25 years for a Stanley Kramer “message picture” to make the list (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” arrived four years later). “Judgment at Nuremberg” has aged well, and is a well-crafted drama with an outstanding ensemble of actors, but after 60 years the film still hasn’t graduated from “great movie” to “classic”, and tends to be remembered as an “Important Movie” of its time. “Judgment” is a fine example of the dramas Stanley Kramer was known for, and is a worthy, but not essential, NFR entry.

Everybody Gets One: Maximilian Schell played Hans Rolfe in the original “Playhouse 90” production, and so impressed Abby Mann and Stanley Kramer that they both insisted on Schell reprising his role for the film, even when bigger names like Marlon Brando expressed interest. Also along for the ride are two unknown actors who would become TV stars by decade’s end: William Shatner and Werner Klemperer, aka Kirk and Klink.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Judgment at Nuremberg” tied “West Side Story” with 11 Oscar nominations, the most for any movie that year. “Nuremberg” ended up losing most of its categories to “West Side Story” (and a few to “The Hustler”), but still snagged two important wins. Abby Mann won for his Adapted Screenplay (the only category “West Side” lost), and Maximilian Schell beat out co-star Spencer Tracy for Best Actor.

Other notes

  • Prior to my viewing, I screened the original “Playhouse 90” production of “Judgment at Nuremberg”. The teleplay obviously lacks the star power and overall scope of the film, but there’s something to be said about a show that covers the same material in half the time. And you could not get two more drastically different interpretations of Judge Haywood than Claude Rains’ elegance and Spencer Tracy’s realism.
  • As with his work in the original teleplay, Maximilian Schell wipes the floor with his co-stars. It helps that the role is far more challenging and flashy than his counterpart Richard Widmark, but Schell helps you see a man whose vow to “do the right thing” is always a struggle. Side note: Schell’s role is not a lead one, but the cast is an ensemble with enough co-lead roles that the argument can be made.
  • The only major player whose performance sticks out in a bad way is Burt Lancaster as Ernst Janning. Lancaster’s about 15 years too young for the part, and while he is quite effective in the role, it’s still a Hollywood leading man overtly playing against type. First choice Laurence Olivier would have been a stronger choice, but his days of playing disgraced ex-Nazis weren’t too far away.
  • Marlene Dietrich’s subplot as Frau Bertholt was written specifically for the movie. A real-life German expat and prominent humanitarian for the American war effort, Dietrich had great difficulty saying some of her character’s dialogue about not all Germans being aware of Hitler’s intentions.
  • This movie has a lot of distracting zooms and 360-degree camera movements. Stanley Kramer later admitted he included these to spice up a potentially monotonous courtroom drama, and in hindsight considered them “a little indulgent”.
  • And then we get Montgomery Clift’s cameo as the sterilized Rudolph Peterson. You can’t help but consider the parallels between the aftermath of Rudolph’s sterilization and the aftermath of Clift’s car accident. Both are men who are a tormented shell of what they once were, which aids in sympathizing with Clift’s character.
  • Speaking of star cameos: Judy Garland is not the first person you think of when you think “German hausfrau”, but boy does she deliver on the character’s pain and vulnerability. Kudos to Kramer for the unconventional casting, and kudos to Judy for pulling it off so effortlessly.
  • As dramatic and impactful as this film can be at times, nothing compares to the sequence that utilizes actual footage from the concentration camps. It is a sobering, haunting moment in the film. Despite the film’s best efforts, this is the imagery that will stay with me from “Judgment at Nuremberg”.
  • Janning’s testimony contends that most Germans did nothing to stop Hitler because they knew it was just a phase the country was going through. Sound familiar?
  • The film ends with a major continuity error that I’m surprised no one has mentioned: The film has the German characters speaking English for obvious pacing/dramatic reasons, but stresses that everyone in the trial has a translator. At the end of the film, Haywood meets with both Rolfe and Janning outside of the courtroom, and everyone understands each other perfectly, even though it is never established that either Rolfe or Janning speak English. How did no one catch that?


  • After the success of “Judgment at Nuremberg” (and fresh off his other dramas “On the Beach” and “Inherit the Wind”), Stanley Kramer challenged himself to make “something a little less serious”. The result: 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, an epic comedy about as far away from Nuremberg as you can get.
  • Abby Mann adapted “Judgment at Nuremberg” once again for the theater, and this version played Broadway in the spring of 2001. Maximilian Schell returned, only this time as Ernst Janning, which he always felt was the best role in the show.

400 Movies! I can’t believe it either! Thanks for sticking it out with me for so long. Onto the next 400. 

Happy Viewing,


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