Judgment at Nuremberg

Very loosely based on the Justice Trials of Nazi judges and Reich Ministry of Justice officialsJudgment at Nuremberg (1961) is a masterful exploration of justice and the personal responsibility of good men trapped in a totalitarian state.  Burt Lancaster, an actor of the first calibre, gives the performance of his career as Ernst Janning.  The early portion of the movie makes clear that Ernst Janning is in many ways a good man.  Before the Nazis came to power Janning was a world respected German jurist.  After the Nazis came to power evidence is brought forward by his defense counsel that Janning attempted to help people persecuted by the Nazis, and that he even personally insulted Hitler on one occasion.  Janning obviously despises the Nazis and the other judges who are on trial with him.  At his trial he refuses to say a word in his defense.  He only testifies after being appalled by the tactics of his defense counsel.  His magnificent and unsparing testimony convicts him and all the other Germans who were good men and women, who knew better, and who failed to speak out or to act against the Nazis.  Janning’s testimony tells us that sins of omission can be as damning as sins of commission.  When he reveals that he sentenced a man to death he knew to be innocent, we can only agree with his bleak assessment that he reduced his life to excrement.  Yet we have to respect Janning.  It is a rare man who can so publicly take responsibility for his own evil acts.

Yet even this  respect is taken away from Janning in the final scene of the film where he attempts to justify himself to Judge Haywood, superbly portrayed by Spencer Tracy, by saying that he never believed that it would all come to the millions of  dead in the concentration camps.  Judge Haywood delivers his verdict on this attempt by Janning to save some shred of self-respect:  “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

Lent is a time for often painful self-examination.  Judgment at Nuremberg gives us a drama which tells us how necessary a process this is, in spite of the pain, and what can happen to individuals and nations when they fail to do it.

5 Responses to Judgment at Nuremberg

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I had to rent and watch this film for a college American history course one semester, and I was so glad to have been given a reason to do so. This was an amazing film, and this speech, its highlight.

    Thanks Don!

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Spencer Tracy’s brilliant verdict speech!

    Marlene Dietrich who appeared in the film was a fervent anti-Nazi. She left Germany after the Nazis took power and spent the war entertaining British and American troops and selling war bonds.

    Werner Klemperer who played one of the Nazi judges, and who would later win fame as Colonel Klink, was a Jewish refugee from Germany. He served in the US Army during the war. When asked how he could play Nazis like Klink, he said that he would go to his grave happy knowing that he had helped make Nazis look ridiculous.

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