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Movie Review: Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)


Although Judgment at Nuremberg was made back in 1961, the questions raised in this film are as relevant today as they were back then. The movie is a fictionalized account of a real trial that took place in 1947. Judges that helped send Jews, liberals, and other "undesirables" to their deaths inside Nazi Germany concentration camps were put on trial for their part.

The film focuses on the trials from the perspective of the head of the US tribunal in charge of the trial, Chief Judge Dan Haywood, played by Spencer Tracey. Haywood and 2 other charges have the heavy responsibility of trying and sentencing 4 German judges. Public interest in this trial was high, as you can imagine. The whole world seems to be watching what Haywood and his tribunal will do. Will they go easy on these men who at one time would have been considered colleagues? Will they really let them have it? Can they really blame the judges for carrying out their duties? Many Americans wanted the whole of Germany to suffer for the pain caused.

About half the film takes place in the courtroom. The other scenes, which are just as powerful, involve Haywood experiencing Germany as a tourist might. He walks around town. He makes friends with the natives. He listens to the music. Although his face remains passive most of the time, you can almost hear him asking the same questions others were asking and are still asking today: How could this have happened? How did Hitler gain control of the whole country? Were the Nazi people not fathers and husbands, too? Would I ever be capable of such evil?

I highly recommend this film. I have seen many films dealing with the Holocaust, but none that deal with this aspect of the story.

About the same time that I was watching the movie, I happened to be listening to The Kite Runner on audiobook. I couldn't help reflecting on some similar things that happened when the Nazis and the Taliban came to power. In both places, a country had been devastated by war. A powerful group came in, unified everyone together, and game people pride. In The Kite Runner, a Afghan man admits to Amir that they cheered when the Taliban entered the town. They wanted an end to the war and suffering. The German judge describes something similar in Judgment. Let me ask you, dear reader, is anyone immune from the pull from this phenomenon? Are Germans or Afghans just genetically evil? They were humans with the capacity for great good or evil. Just as you are. Just as I am.

We must always be careful that we don't let fear be the driving force behind what choices we make in how we will cope with a situation. I think fear clearly lead to both things. I'm not talking about Hitler or Osama or the extremists who took advantage of that fear to cause evil. But the average man, I believe, does not wake up wanting to torture someone.

Judgment at Nuremberg will get you thinking about these issues. It's a movie I won't forget for awhile.

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