Very loosely based on the Justice Trials of Nazi judges and Reich Ministry of Justice officials, Judgment 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 because of pressure from the Nazi government, 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.