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MGM Studios DVD presents
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

"Who is the braver man? The man who escapes or resigns in time of peril, or the man who stays on his post at the risk of his own safety?"
- Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 29, 2004

Stars: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark. Maximilian Schell
Other Stars: Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, William Shatner, Werner Klemperer
Director: Stanley Kramer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, concentration camp footage)
Run Time: 03h:06m:21s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 027616911148
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+A-B+ B-

DVD Review

The Nazi war crime tribunals at Nuremberg after World War II were epochal in a number of ways. The concept of crimes against humanity was given a solid legal footing for the first time, and more importantly the extremity of the abominations committed by the Nazis became more widely known. Although many are familiar with the first round of trials with such notable Nazis as Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Hans Frank, and Julius Streicher, the trials continued for several more years, with lower-level officials standing in the dock. These later trials, where the issues became murkier and the defendants less obviously demonic, are the focus of this legendary drama, which originated as a highly-acclaimed episode of Playhouse 90.

Retired judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has been appointed to preside over the trial of four German judges, accused of ordering sterilizations for political purposes, ordering the death penalty for violations of the Nuremberg racial purity laws, and authorizing hundreds to be sent to concentration camps. Among the defendants is a well-respected legal scholar, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), who protests the legality of the proceedings against him. Richard Widmark portrays the dogged prosecutor, Col. Ted Lawson, deeply affected by his taking part in the liberation of the camps. The defense attorney, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), puts a number of lights on the evidence to make understandable how such things could occur, and threatens to make the indictment stand in for a much broader indictment of the German people and the politicians and populace of the world who not only did nothing to stop Hitler but often cheered him on—and the American industrialists who financed him. How is one to compare their guilt with those who arguably were mere cogs in German society, who faced death themselves if they refused to comply?

The all-star cast does a marvelous job with this powerful material, with the four main protagonists without exception, excellent. Each gets a turn at important speechifying, though they manage not to seem like they're orating and suck the audience in to follow their every word. But the small supporting turns are notable also, with Judy Garland presenting one of the most riveting performances of her career as a victim of one of Janning's rulings. Montgomery Clift is also memorable as a slow-minded baker's helper forcibly sterilized because his father was a communist. Even William Shatner is restrained as Tracy's aide. Werner Klemperer, better known as TV's Col. Klink, here is a much nastier Nazi.

What really makes this an interesting social drama is the multiplicity of perspective, focused on Haywood's attempts to understand how these events could occur. The contradictions are pointed up by the devastating transition of hand-clapping during an expression of gemütlich that evolves into the banging of the gavel. Despite being a talky courtroom drama, often what needs to be told is expressed wordlessly, such as the visible discomfort of Haywood's German servants as they strenuously deny knowing anything about the nearby Buchenwald camp: even if they didn't know everything, they clearly knew enough to feel extremely guilty. At the same time, the tensions of the Berlin airlift and Russian saber-rattling bring political pressures down upon Haywood to modify his rulings, which he recognizes as not being all that dissimilar from those that were brought to bear upon the judges in the dock.

The screenplay and Stanley Kramer's direction both put the lie to the notion of American exceptionalism and the inherent evil of the German people: anyone could find themselves in this position, and the citizens of any country, including America, could end up in a situation where the leaders demonize a group or groups and engineer their destruction while making a shambles of civil rights and liberties. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has, as the defense attorney points out, approved of, on occasion, forced sterilization, cutting away the high moral ground. The responsibilities for such a situation may be global, as Rolfe's closing argument points out, but ultimately the issue of guilt comes down to the decisions made by the individual and whether he allows himself to be co-opted into a monstrous regime.

This picture was one of the first occasions where concentration camp footage was widely disseminated, as a result of not wanting to offend Germany during the Cold War. The result was a level of Holocaust denial during the 1950s, even at universities, that seems unthinkable today. Sensitive viewers should be aware that some of this footage (though by no means the most horrific) is present in the film. The print used here includes both the overture and exit music.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The nonanamorphic widescreen picture nonetheless looks very good indeed. Even blown up on a widescreen set there is plenty of crisp and fine detail, with very little visible artifacting. The black-and-white photography is vivid, with excellent greyscale range. The source print is immaculate with hardly even a speckle on the screen. I suppose it might have looked a little better if it were anamorphic, but it's one of the best nonanamorphic transfers I've seen.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both the original mono and a 5.1 remix are provided in very clean renderings. The 5.1 track rather cleverly mimics a period surround arrangement, with extreme panning of left and right for dialogue offscreen. The music sounds fine, without any significant deep bass, as is to be expected. A courtroom drama doesn't need much more than this.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01:47m:09s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: MGM provides several useful extras for this classic. In a 19m:37s documentary, writer Abby Mann discusses the making of the film with Maximilian Schell, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hans Rolfe. Although the first couple of minutes are wasted on "mutual admiration society" chatter, they eventually get to interesting recollections of the writing and making of the film, including the information that Brando was lobbying hard for Schell's role. A shorter featurette, The Value of a Single Human Being (6m:02s) features Mann reading some of Tracy's principal speech and pointing out that the real villain of the piece is not Nazism per se, but patriotism, and that to a certain extent Nazism is used as a metaphor for McCarthyism. Finally, a 14m:25s featurette on Stanley Kramer, hosted by his widow Helen Sharpe Kramer, that takes a look at his interest in the subject matter and his devotion to telling the story properly. The package is rounded out by the theatrical trailer and an extensive photo gallery of over ten dozen stills that cover the costume and set design, location and set shooting and the premiere in Berlin. A second disc with the television version would have been a welcome extra (if it still exists), but this is nonetheless a very satisfactory single-disc package.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

One of the most powerful filmic dramas ever is given an attractive presentation and some useful supplements to boot. Very highly recommended.


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