Friday, 12 June 2015

Film Friday: "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961)

To celebrate Judy Garland's 93th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of my favorite films of hers. Oddly enough, it is not a musical.

Original release poster
Directed by Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) centers on a military tribunal convened in Nuremberg, Germany, in which four German judges and prosecutors stand accused of crimes against humanity for their involvement in the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime. During the long weeks of the trial, American judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) tries to determine whether the German people really understood what Nazi leader Adolf Hitler stood for. In doing so, he talks with a number of Germans who have different perspective on the war, including the aristocratic Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), the widow of German general who was executed by the Allies after the earlier trials.

The prosecuting attorney, Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), believes that the four men accused embraced and enforced Nazi laws perfectly aware of what they were doing, making it clear that he wants to obtain the maximum punishment. The defense lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), counters by arguing that the German citizens were not aware of the extense of the crimes of the Nazi regime. He says that if the defendants are guilty because they carried out the laws of their country, then all of Germany must be tried. To support his accusations of inhuman actions, Lawson offers the testimony of Rudolf Petersen (Montgomery Clift), who was sterilized by the Nazis for being mentally challenged. The trial reaches a climax when Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland) claims that a former friend, an elderly Jew, was falsely accused and later executed for being intimate with her. As Irene breaks into hysterical cries after Rolfe accuses her of distorting the truth, one of accused, Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), interrupts the hearings and admits to being guilty of ignoring the attrocious Nazi acts because he felt they were for the ultimate good of the country. Refusing to let the German judges off lightly so as to gain Germany's support in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, Haywood sentences all four defendants to life in prison.

Ernst Janning: It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it... whatever the pain and humiliation.

Writer Abby Mann first became interested in the events that happened in Nuremberg following World War II when he met Abraham Pomerantz at a dinner party in New York in 1957. Pomerantz had been one of the prosecutors in the last trials, whose defendants included diplomats, doctors and judges. He had left after discovering that most of the judges willing to serve at these trials were political hacks and the ones that could have made a real contribution did not attend "because Nuremberg had become unpopular and being part of it might hurt their careers." Intrigued by what Pomerantz told him, Mann accepted his suggestion that he talk with Telford Taylor, the Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution at the Judges' Trial in 1947. According to Taylor, this was the most significant of the trials "because these judges' minds had not been warped at an early age. Having reached maturity long before Hitler's rise to power, they embraced the ideologies of the Third Reich as educated adults." Eager to learn more, Mann decided to read the transcripts of the Justice Trials and then travelled to Germany to meet some of the participants in the Nazi regime, including filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and the widow of a general who had been convicted at Nuremberg.

Upon returning home to New York, Mann began writing a television drama entitled Judgment at Nuremberg, inspired by what he had learned during the previous months. At at time when Germany was America's loyal ally against the Soviet Union, it was considered "a breach of good manners to bring up the subject of German guilt for the events that happened during the Third Reich." Nevertheless, CBS agreed to produce Judgment at Nuremberg as part of their live anthology series Playhouse 90 (1956-1960). Starring Claude Rains, Melvyn Douglas, Paul Lukas and a young German actor named Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg aired on television in April 1959 and was warmly received by the public, although critics and industry peers were not as approving. When Mann tried to sell his teleplay as a film, the Hollywood studios showed no interest in the project. Consequently, he put Judgment at Nuremberg out of his mind and approached Katharine Hepburn for a lead role in another television drama he had written, A Child Is Waiting (this was later made into a 1963 film starring Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland).

Spencer Tracy as Dan Haywood
Hepburn was interested in starring in A Child Is Waiting, but only if they could find the right person to direct it. With that in mind, Mann travelled to Europe to discuss the project with British director Jack Clayton and Jules Dassin, who had revived his career in France after being blacklisted by Hollywood studios in 1948. While in Europe, Mann's agent called him with the news that Hepburn had shown a copy of Judgment at Nuremberg to her long-time partner Spencer Tracy, who wanted to play the role of Judge Dan Haywood on screen. "My thoughts went back to the time I was writing Judgment at Nuremberg in my one-room apartment in New York," Mann later wrote. "I had dreamed of one actor doing it. That actor was Tracy. He was the essence of America, all that was good about it in one man."

It was Tracy who suggested that Stanley Kramer produce and direct Judgment at Nuremberg. A graduate of New York University, Kramer moved to Hollywood in 1933 to work as a junior writer for 20th Century Fox. After serving in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, he found that there were no jobs available, which prompt him to create his own production company with writer Herbie Baker, publicist George Glass and producer Carl Foreman. Soon, Kramer built a reputation as a maker of "message films," bringing attention to contemporary social issues that most studios avoided. By the early 1960s, he had explored such controversial themes as race relations in The Defiant Ones (1958), nuclear war in On the Beach (1959) and creationism versus evolution in Inherit the Wind (1960), the first of four pictures he would make with Tracy. 

Burt Lancaster and Stanley Kramer on the set
The Nuremberg Trials were a subject perfectly suited to Kramer's artistic and political agenda, but getting the picture done proved to be a challenge, even with one of the most respected actors in Hollywood already on board to play the lead role. Adding to the difficulty of the project was the fact that Kramer's films, although highly regarded by critics, were not always commercially successful. When United Artists to whom Kramer had been under contract as director since 1955 finally agreed to finance Judgment at Nuremberg, it was on the condition that he gather an all-star cast to support Tracy, so as to provide the film with some kind of "insurance." 

Kramer originally cast Laurence Olivier as the German judge Ernst Janning, but the actor had to withdraw from the production due to an extended run on the play Beckett. The director then offered the role to Burt Lancaster, who gladly accepted it, though only after he secured Kramer's guarantee that he would not have to shoot on location in Berlin and Nuremberg, as it was important to him not to be separated from his family while his children were at school. As Kramer later recalled, he sought Lancaster to play Janning because "it was not the obvious choice. His character was guilty and he was aware of it — that gave him a hook and I think he grabbed it. Also, Burt had a general background knowledge beyond the ordinary actor, in terms of the times in which he lived. He was interested, always, in going beyond the pale to achieve an honesty and I respected that."

Maximilian Schell and Richard Widmark
The role of the prosecuting lawyer Colonel Tad Lawson was given to Richard Widmark, who quickly accepted the offer. He was thrilled that he would be working with his idol Spencer Tracy again, after appearing with him in Edward Dmytryk's western Broken Lance (1954). Widmark also admired Kramer's directing style and precise shooting schedule and called Mann's script the best he had ever read, saying that it took him six weeks to learn his lines. Even though his aim was for bigger names, Kramer decided to bring back the relatively unknown Austrian-born actor Maximilian Schell to reprise the role he had played in the original television production, that of the defendant attorney Hans Rolfe. Watching Schell perform a scene one day, Tracy turned to Widmark and said, "We've got to watch out for that young man. He's very good. He's going to walk away with the Oscar for this picture."

The role of Colonel Lawson had actually been intended for Montgomery Clift, but after reading the script, the actor found the character of Jewish Rudolf Petersen to be more interesting. Clift later recalled, "I felt the original part they wanted me to play [...] was wrong for me, but I was tremendously intrigued by a smaller role which obviously doesn't deserve my usual salary [...] since it is only one scene and could be filmed in a single day. [...] I felt it was more practical to do it for nothing than to reduce my price or to refuse a role I wanted to play." By the time Kramer cast him in Judgment at Nuremberg, Clift was a physical and emotional wreck. His near-fatal car accident in May 1956, which severely altered his handsome facial appearance, had left him with an addiction to painkillers and alcohol that eventually led to his untimely death in 1966. According to Kramer, Clift's disturbing condition enhanced the authenticity of his character, a victim of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime. His part required only ten days of work at Universal Studios in Hollywood, but shooting his 12-minute scene was harder than expected, as Clift would always go in front of the camera drunk and unable to remember his exact lines.

Montgomery Clif as Rudolf Petersen
Clift often apologized to the crew for not being able to get through his scene. "Just forget the damn lines, Monty," Kramer tried to reassure him. "Just turn to Tracy on the bench whenever you feel the need and ad lib something. It will be alright because it will convey the confusion in your character's mind." Finally, Tracy, who had his own alcohol problems, grabbed Clift by the shoulders and said, "You are the greatest young actor alive. Look, it doesn't matter to Stanley or to me what the words are. Stop trying to remember the lines, and just look into my eyes and tell me how you feel." Clift then took a picture of his mother out of his pocket and improvised the entire scene. The results were so powerful that everyone on the set broke out into spontaneous applause at the end of his last take. "Monty's condition gave the performance an aura as though it were being shot through muslin," Kramer later recalled, "the way the words tumbled out and the disjointed, sudden bursts of lucidity out of a mumble. It was classic! It was one of the best moments in the film!"

When Kramer considered Judy Garland for a role in Judgment at Nuremberg, he was perfectly aware of her reputation for being difficult and unreliable, as well as of her long addiction to prescription medications. Garland had not appeared in a film since George Cukor's critically acclaimed A Star Is Born (1954), but when Kramer went to see her in concert, he was so impressed by her incredible emotional range and the way the audience responded to her performance that he immediately offered her the part of Irene Hoffman. At this point in her life, Garland was noticeably overweight and wanted to trim down for the film, but Kramer convinced not to change her appearance, as it helped her be more like her German housewife character.

Judy Garland as Irene Hoffman
On her first day on the set of Judgment at Nuremberg, Garland was greeted by the cast and crew with warm and lasting applause. It was a much-awaited return to films for her and her joyful mood was further elevated by the lower pressure of acting in a small role rather than carrying a picture all by herself, as she had done in almost every picture she had been in since childhood. Despite a few difficulties while performing her dark, emotional scenes, Garland proved to be punctual, cooperative and professional all throughout production. 

Perhaps finding in one another a kindred spirit, Garland and Clift became close friends during filming. Although Clift's segment was finished by the time Garland's began, he hung around the set for an additional week, watching everything that was going on. As he watched Garland break down on the stand during her scene with Schell, Clift sat in a corner, crying. At the end of the scene, he went over to Kramer and, still sobbing, he mumbled, "She played that all wrong." Kramer later said, "I think Monty and Judy understood each other [...] Both of their careers had reached a low point, and they were each struggling to find their way back. They both had incredible problems and in this there was obvious camaraderie."

Rounding up the stellar cast of Judgment at Nuremberg was Marlene Dietrich in the role of Frau Bertholt, the widow of a German general who was executed by the Allies. Obtaining Dietrich's participation in the film, however, was not easy, as she had to be assured that Mann's script was emotionally honest and accurate. She even made several suggestions as to how her character could be bettered and tried to incorporate her own childhood experiences and attitudes into Frau Bertholt's dialogue. In addition, Dietrich made Kramer's job as the director difficult by always giving him orders about how she was to lighted and where the camera should be placed. In the end, the meticulous care that she and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, who had received an Oscar nomination for his work on Inherit the Wind, took over her features only accentuated the results of her latest surgical face-lift. When Dietrich saw the finished film, she was very displeased with the results.

Stanley Kramer, Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark
on location in Berlin
To get the needed background footage for bomb-torn Nuremberg, Kramer took a film crew to Germany and shot the scenes within a block of the East Berlin border, where the consequences of World War II were still evident. At one particular point, however, he had a mountain of rubble piled up for background instead of using the authentic ruins. Despite being ill with a kidney ailment and other problems derived from his longstanding alcoholism, Tracy made his first trip to Berlin to film a scene that called for him to ride by the rubble of the city in a 1938 Mercedes, which was rented from a man in Munich for $75 a day. Widmark also travelled to Berlin to take a two-block jeep ride for the cameras, in the scene where Colonel Lawson is looking for Irene Hoffman as a witness in the trial. Kramer also wanted to film Judgment at Nuremberg in the original courtroom where the real trials took place, but it was still in use and unavailable to him. He then had a mock-up built in the studio, scaled down for greater efficiency in photographing the action.

To focus attention on the film, United Artists chose Kongresshalle in West Berlin for the premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg and included a lavish press junket that gathered more than 300 reporters from 26 countries. Neither Lancaster nor Dietrich attended the event, the actress most likely because of her history of tense relations with Germany since her departure to the United States in the 1930s and her denunciation of the Third Reich. After the film was shown on December 14, 1961 one day before Nazi official Adolf Heichman was sentenced in Israel for war crimes the audience stood in dead silence; a few moments later, only the non-German press applauded.

Judy Garland and Stanley Kramer arriving at the
Berlin premiere of Judgment at Nuremberg
German critics loudly condemned Kramer for stirring up the ghosts of the past and fueling hatred towards their country. At the premiere, the Mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt, declared: "The film Judgment at Nuremberg, which will raise a great many questions, is ensuring by its world premiere in Berlin that its own importance as well as that of Berlin as a center of spiritual conflict are heavily underlined [...] I hope that world-wide discussion will be aroused by both this film and this city, and that this will contribute to the strengthening of right and justice." Kramer later said of Judgment at Nuremberg: "The film was totally rejected. It never did three cents' business in Germany. It played so many empty houses, it just stopped. People asked me how could I, an American, try to rekindle German guilt? Well, I said it would indeed be better if the Germans had made it, but the fact is they didn't. So I did."

Despite the controversy it caused in Germany, Judgment at Nuremberg was universally acclaimed by the foreign press and it was a solid box-office success when it opened at the Palace Theatre in New York on December 19. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a powerful, persuasive film [...] Within the scope and depth of this picture [...] there are many disturbing intimations and revealing performances. [...] The major weakness, perhaps, of the whole thing is that it is inevitably compressive and sometimes glib. The strength and wonder of it is that it manages to say so much that still needs to be said." For their part, Variety would have liked "a faster tempo" by Kramer and "more trenchant script editing," but still praised the performances of the principal cast, especially Spencer Tracy and Maximilian Schell: "Tracy delivers a performance of great intelligence and intuition. He creates a gentle, but towering, figure, compassionate but realistic, warm but objective. Schell repeats the role he originated, with electric effect, on the TV program, and again he brings to it a fierce vigor, sincerity and nationalistic pride."

Maximilian Schell with his Oscar
At the 34th Academy Awards held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April 1962, Tracy's prediction came true when Maximilian Schell received the Oscar for Best Actor, beating Tracy himself, who was nominated in the same category, for the eighth time in his career. Abby Mann was also a winner that night, earning the statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay. In addition, Judgment at Nuremberg received nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Montgomery Clift), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Garland), Best Art Director (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White) and Best Film Editing. The Best Picture winner that year was West Side Story (1961), which also gave Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins the Oscar for Best Director. George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won in the supporting acting categories for their performances in the same film.

Judgment at Nuremberg is one of those films I think everyone should see. The fact that it still remains so highly regarded today is hopefully a sign that people still haven't forgotten the horrors of the Nazi regime and are determined not to let it happen again.

Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich by Donald Spoto (2000) | Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford (2001) | History in the Media: Film and Television by Robert Niemi (2006) | Judgment at Nuremberg [introductory notes] by Abby Mann (2002) | Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2002) | Richard Widmark: A Bio-Bibliography by Kim R. Holston (1990) | United Artists, Volume 2, 1951-1978: The Company That Changed the Film Industry by Tino Balio (2009) | Stars and Stripes article by Wallace Beene | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

1 comment:

  1. Impressed at the detail you put into your post. Well done. It is such a wonderful movie.