This bit from the opening titles of JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG reduced Fiona and I to hysterics.
I know, it’s unfair. Miss Dietrich must have her gowns, and they must be by Jean-Louis, who must have his credit. Under a swastika?
In a way it sums up the film’s aesthetic, which is elucidating the darkest crimes of the 20th century using movie stars and the apparatus of Hollywood. Can commercial movies tackle such subjects? It would be more shameful not to try, I think. Maybe, as probably Claude Lanzmann would argue, the result is bound to be obscene in some way, but maybe it’s better to have that kind of artistic failure than to remain silent. Spielberg following Jews into the showers to create tension, or here, Richard Widmark narrating death camp mass burials, is undoubtedly a high-risk game.
Visually there’s some nice work, with Kramer enlivening his testimonies with a moving camera that creeps around the actors, examining them warily as if they were recently fallen space debris. He’s also discovered the zoom, and gets carried away, though one early crash in on Maximilian Schell is so powerful it causes him to CHANGE LANGUAGE. This must surely be the origin of the move-in on Peter Firth (as a character called Putin) in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, a real coup de cinema in which Firth switches to English from Russian on the word “Armageddon” (the same in any language), just as the camera reaches an ECU of his lips…
Abby Mann’s script, it seems to me, affords Kramer some excellent opportunities — I think everything that’s not a trial scene is, essentially dilution and a mistake, but the trial — if you can forgive the dramatic contrivances and what are probably blatant violations of courtroom protocol — is often riveting. Montgomery Clift proves he could still do it — his character is falling apart, so it’s hard to be sure how much is acting, but I *think* he’s actually in control of his performance. He certainly isn’t depending on an editor to manufacture it out of the most acceptable bits, as reportedly happened on his last film. He may have required a lot of special care to nurse him through it — Kramer was adept at that, dealing with Spencer Tracy’s alcoholism and later his declining health — but he offers up astonishing moments here, and I think he’s USING his physical and mental frailty.
Clift’s stuff is emotionally devastating — I would challenge any Kramer naysayer to sit through it without a pang — and I think it eschews cheap manipulation. Judy Garland’s far simpler performance is equally effective. Each of them is like a raw nerve, sat in the witness stand, getting pinged by Maximilian Schell.
Schell is also excellent — he doesn’t have sympathy on his side, but he has complexity, as he tries to make his character comprehensible, motivated, and even in some ways RIGHT — even while he becomes our hate-figure, standing in for the broad mass of Nazi Germany that went along with evil rather than initiating it.
And then Burt Lancaster is terrif, not in a feat of great acting to rank alongside his fractured co-stars, but as a towering monument of charisma, gravitas and contained energy. Star quality, with every muscle tensed trying to hold it in and focus it.
Spencer Tracy is also fine, but I could do without most of the between-courtroom filler, because what he does best here is LISTEN.
So, if one can accept the kind of film that has gowns by Jean-Louis and atrocity footage and isn’t afraid to juxtapose them almost directly, the real virtues of the drama here can be commended.