Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Judgment at Nuremberg – Spencer Tracy and William Shatner in the Same Film

Written by Abby Mann
Directed by Stanley Kramer

Star Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

History is written by the winners…

Following the end of the Second World War, the desire to punish those in the Third Reich was strong. The chief architects of the atrocities committed against the people of Europe in the name of ethnic purity – Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels – were dead. Trials of others, such as Rudolph Hess (Hitler‘s Deputy in the Nazi Party) and Hermann Goering, were held at Nuremberg. Rudolph Hess spent the rest of his life in prison, while Goering escaped execution by committing suicide like Hitler and Goebbels.

Into the vacuum of where to point the finger falls four judges accused of war crimes. Their crimes were committed in the name of the law, or what passed for “justice” during the reign of the Nazis in Germany. They are to be tried by a tribunal of judges.

Spencer Tracy stars as Chief Judge Dan Haywood. He’s a former judge in Maine who was voted off the bench. Judgment at Nuremberg revolves mostly around him as we never get to know the other judges quite as well. We see where Haywood lives while in Nuremberg, where he goes sometimes during the day, who he talks to, and how he occupies what little free time the trial allows him.

The cast reads as a who’s who of Hollywood at the time. It’s easy to understand why many stars would have wanted to be in a movie that would have the impact of a film about the trials of Nazi judges, but it’s also a distraction at some points of the film. I think the Director, Stanley Kramer, might have done the film a service by resisting the temptation to cast some well-known stars in many of the roles and going with more unknowns, as William Shatner was at the time. Of course, now his presence was somewhat of a distraction for me, but I do think his supporting role here was one of the best performances I’ve seen him give.

That’s not to take anything away from Spencer Tracy’s performance as Dan Haywood. I really liked him in the role. He brought a feeling of fairness and honesty to the role. Dan Haywood was not out to string up anyone who had anything to do with Nazi Party politics, as he demonstrates at various times in the film. It is through Haywood that we get a look at the German people in post-war Germany as he tries to discern where culpability for the many atrocities committed by the Germans lies. He’s not ready to condemn the German people as a whole for what happened.

However, this is the tail end of the Nuremberg trials and the German people have grown weary of it all, wanting to just try to move on as best they can. When Haywood tries to talk to the servants in the home in which he is staying, they seem to be as afraid of talking to him as you would think some would be of the Nazis. The implication here is that the fear of being put on trial for war crimes has everyone afraid to talk about what happened. They keep reiterating they weren’t political and they didn’t know about things such as Dachau, but it becomes apparent that they did know more than what they are willing to admit.

Burt Lancaster is Dr. Ernst Janning, one of the German judges on trial, and the one who seemed to have the most international prestige prior to the rise of the Nazis. He spends most of the trail quietly listening to the testimony around him, strong in his silence while at the same time seeming to acknowledge that something went terribly wrong somewhere.

What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase… It is only a stage we are going through… The country is in danger… We will go forward…

This is part of Janning’s speech in the courtroom and it is as powerful and relevant today as it was to Nazi Germany. It is something everyone should hear and think about for themselves, especially in light of what is going on in the world today.

Maximilian Schell is the lead defense attorney, Hans Rolfe. Despite this, I really enjoyed his performance and admired him as an attorney. Credit goes to Abby Mann, the writer of the screenplay, for creating characters who are not all “evil” or all “good” When Richard Widmark as prosecuting attorney Colonel Tad Lawson trots out the films of the liberation of Dachau, it’s a powerful emotional moment that’s bound to move anyone. However, should it have an effect on the trial of judges who were just carrying out the law as authored by the architects of the atrocities? The answer is never really given, but the general feeling was that it was a grandstanding play that had been trotted out over and over before at the trials.

Much more pertinent are the testimonies given by Montgomery Clift as Rudolph Petersen and Judy Garland as Irene Hoffman-Wallner. They are two people whose lives were directly affected by the decisions the judges made, even if they were based on the law at the time.

Against this, we are shown the backdrop of a Germany still nursing its wounds from the war. Nuremberg is largely still bombed-out and littered with debris and the shells of buildings. The people who have survived are attempting to pick up and go on as best they can. Haywood befriends the woman who once resided at his home, Mrs. Bertholt (portrayed by Marlene Dietrich) who was from a society family. She lost everything following the war just due to being married to someone who was a General in the Nazi regime. The implied question is does she deserve to lose it all? Haywood answers the question in the end with his decision as well as during a conversation he has with Janning.

At the beginning of Judgment at Nuremberg, the translation is shown during the tribunal so the audience can get a feel for just how difficult it is. The prosecution must slow down how it is proceeding because the translator is having a problem following them. To keep the film from being bogged down in the endless translation back and forth during the trial between German and English, and in the interest of expediency, the movie shifts to being entirely in English although all still wear their headsets, implying that the translating is continuing.

At the end of the film, it states that the Nuremberg Trials held in the American Zone ended on July 14, 1949. There were ninety-nine defendants sentenced to prison terms. Not one was still serving his sentence at the time this film was made in (1961). This is not true as Rudolph Hess was still imprisoned and remained imprisoned until his death in 1987. Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer were also tried at Nuremberg and remained in prison until 1966.

At the end of the film, Spencer Tracy must decide whether or not he will convict four judges who were following the letter of the law in Nazi Germany at the time. There is also ambiguity if it’s a condemnation of the German people as a whole. Judgment at Nuremberg raises many questions about obeying the law of the land, even when that law is something you disagree with morally. It’s a picture many should see and think about, as well as challenging how we see the world in such simplistic terms.


” In Conversation: Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell
” The Value of a Single Human Being
” A Tribute to Stanley Kramer
” Photo Gallery
” Theatrical Trailer