The true source of drama, then, is in the accounts of the genuine events, or fictionalized versions of true events.
The Nuremberg war crime trials presented many thorny jurisprudential issues, such as the problem of ex post facto criminal law and the issue of how the court obtained jurisdiction over the defendants. In particular, what justification is there for an international (rather than a German) tribunal to try a case in which the offenses were committed by Germans against other Germans?
The trial of the Nazi judges presented additional dilemmas. What of Rolfe's argument that Janning remained on the bench in order to make the system of justice more merciful than it otherwise would have been? Certainly if Janning had resigned he would have been replaced by a more brutal official. Should this be a defense against charges that in some cases Janning had acted in a brutal and lawless manner? He also argued that it is the responsibility of the judge to carry out the laws of his country adopted by competent authorities, even if he disagrees with them. And what of independence - can a person serve as a judge when he is subject to the control or influence of non-judicial officials? And how about selective prosecution - there were thousands of German judges. Why are these four being picked on?
Judicial independence was an issue for the American judges at Nuremberg as well. By the time of the trial, Haywood was under intense pressure to go easy on the defendants since the Cold War had begun. The Berlin Blockade was underway and higher concerns of foreign policy suggested that the Germans were now allies rather than enemies. In the film, Haywood resists these pressures and finds the defendants guilty based on a few cases they had judged. A judge's responsibility, he declares, is to stand for justice when standing for something is most difficult.
A noted author has found one judge, just one, who opposed the Nazis and spoke up against the prostitution of the judicial system. This judge, Lothar Kreyssig, was allowed to retire in 1942 and received a full pension. He suggests that other judges could have resisted the Nazis-if they had wanted to. Ingo Muller, in his book Hitler's Justice, also discusses the Nuremberg trial and domestic German trials against some of the judges, and recounts how all of them, judges and professors alike, were swiftly rehabilitated and got their jobs back. They then wrote books and articles justifying their actions under the Third Reich.
This is not to suggest that masterly dramatic devices are not used to engage the interest and emotions of the audience. The argument runs that it was the judges' duty to uphold the laws of the land, and not to question, doubt or otherwise attempt to subvert them, but simply to enforce their application. In defending his clients (four judges accused of crimes against humanity), Herr Rolfe demonstrates the questioning techniques and the processes applied by the accused. This heightens emotion and provokes reaction and sympathy from the audience as it gives us a taste of what those offering testimony must have gone through. Interestingly, these techniques are largely allowed by the presiding judges.
The laws which allowed thousands to be deprived of basic human rights to the point of torture and murder are explained with "reasoned" argument. Injustice based on racism and bigotry became enshrined in a legal system in order to promote renewed national confidence, strength and patriotism. That this was achieved by means of scapegoats and a system of law which was devoid of compassion and sympathy for fellow human beings appears to have been considered an acceptable price for others to pay.
One of the conclusions reached at the end of the film is that jurists should aim at justice and fairness in the construction and application of laws. Laws should not be created to promote a particular group or culture at the expense of others, nor can the fact that such purposes are enshrined in law mean that they can be considered just or right. This conclusion surely holds implications for us all. Should legal systems be considered above common humanity? How do we decide what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Do we have the right to act if we are to break existing legal strictures? Do we have the right not to act if basic human rights are being infringed by means of biased or unjust laws, or which are perceived as such?
As Ernst Janning (Lancaster) suggests toward the end of the film, people are judged not just by their actions, but also by their inaction. He suggests that some in his position did know what was happening, but they chose to turn a blind eye to such events. He also states that we can only improve if truth is faced. Within the context of the rise of Nazi Germany it is suggested that guilt by inaction applies equally to numerous other parties and nations who knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it, and may even have profited by it.
The film does not shirk from raising other issues as well. In condemning the four judges, the German people at large are also condemned by implication, yet we meet a number of sincere, principled and patriotic Germans who deny all knowledge of atrocities. Shortly after viewing film of concentration camps just after their liberation, Judge Haywood meets Madam Berthold, (whose husband, General Berthold was executed following previous court proceedings) in a bar filled with locals who are making merry and who seem to be enjoying life. Madam Berthold assures Haywood that neither she nor her husband knew anything of the camps, nor, indeed, did many German people. Haywood points out that according to accounts he has heard, no one knew of their existence. The footage from the camps is in direct contrast with the jolly atmosphere in the pub, while Madam Berthold urges Haywood to allow the German nation to forget the past and look forward.
Haywood is also put under political pressure toward the same end, as the Cold War was developing and the German people were to be encouraged to play an important part in defending Europe against Communist threat. On top of this, the tribunal faces issues concerning the very authority of the court, the apparent injustice of choosing to prosecute these four individuals among so many others, along with the general denial of knowledge of the scale of events. Yet Haywood delivers the judgment already mentioned.
Why? Perhaps because although (as Madam Berthold suggested) there is a need to move on, there is also a need to learn from the past and as Ernst Janning said, we can only go forward if we face the truth. Merely moving on for the sake of political expediency would be to deny the injustices done, and would not allow lessons to be learned.
This is a quite stunning and courageous film, standing for principle and justice in the face of political and legal expediency. It stands as a reminder of what politics and law should aim for, but also how easily one can lose sight of these ideals and allow these frameworks to be subverted.
The movie has an unusual undertone. Judge Haywood gives us the uneasy feeling that the German people never really came to terms with their guilt. That the need to forget was never truly preceded by an analysis and acknowledgement of guilt. This movie makes the point that Germany, at the time of the movie was made, was moving "beyond" the war a little too fast, and was doing so with the help of the U.S. And other allies, because of the cold war. In a particularly dramatic moment at the end of the movie, just before Haywood is to leave Germany, Hans Rolfe and Judge Haywood discuss the verdicts.
Hans Rolfe: I'll make you a wager.
Judge Dan Haywood: I don't make wagers.
Hans Rolfe: [chuckles] A gentleman's wager... In five years, the men you sentenced to life imprisonment will be free.
Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Rolfe, I have admired your work in the court for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic. So, what you suggest may very well happen... It is logical in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right, and nothing on God's earth could ever make it right.
The real trials ended in 1949.
None of the 99 defendants sentenced in the various trials were still serving time by the time the movie was made in 1961.
Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen: 'Judgment at Nuremberg': Palace Shows Stanley Kramer Production." New York Times. 20 December 1961. 24 July 2005 http://movies2.nytimes.com/mem/movies/review.html?title1=&title2=Judgment%20at%20Nuremberg%20%28Movie%29&reviewer=BOSLEY%20CROWTHER&v_id=63796&partner=Rotten%20Tomatoes&oref=login.
Judgment at Nuremberg. Dir. Stanley Kramer. Perf. Spencer…