It's 1948 in Nuremberg, Germany. World War II has been over for two years, and the Allied powers have organized an official tribunal against four former Nazi judges who used the judicial system to sanction the vilest atrocities ever committed against mankind. What should be the easiest slam dunk in tribunal history is anything but, and the entire world's eyes are on this modest courtroom where the German defense attorney has posited a very slippery and controversial counter-argument against the culpability of his clients: with which individual or hierarchy does guilt cease? Is Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) the demon boogeyman that deserves to be formally charged for crimes against humanity? Or is it himself along with the three other judges sharing space on the same dock? Or, ultimately, is it all of Germany, or the world - its smaller governments and its people - who watched the Third Reich attempt to decimate an entire nationality and who did nothing to stop it? Chief Judge Day Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has the sad honor of overseeing such a claim. He, along with two other judges, must hear the relentless defense attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximillian Schell) argue using that latter tactic - that to condemn one men, or four, is to condemn an entire nation.
So says Mrs. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), owner of the house in which the stationed Chief Judge Haywood is staying: "I have a mission with you Americans: to convince you we're not all monsters."
Judgment at Nuremberg is phenomenal. Those more learned and cultured than I in the history of landmark cinema have already far more properly lauded this 1961 powerhouse directed by Stanley Kramer than I ever could. From the performances to the lush production design to the absolute best component, the flawless screenplay by Abby Man, Judgment at Nuremberg rightfully maintains its status as being one of the greatest films of all time. Despite the presence of legends Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, it's the performance of Schell as Defense Attorney Rolfe who provides the film's best character (and for which he won an Academy Award). Like Judgment at Nuremberg, in which a world-changing event spearheaded by the Nazi party committed to the pages of history the worst crimes man could ever commit to man, Rolfe becomes the embodiment of the spectacle in which these tribunals were viewed. Defend those monsters? Give them a voice and an audience? But instead of taking the easy way out and painting Rolfe as a typical unlikable archetype, Schell instead imbues upon his character as much sympathy as he can while remaining within the realm of realism. Watch as he shows no restraint with the prosecution's first expert witness, his fury bolstered by what he views as hypocrisy, but then watch him with the prosecution's second witness, a mentally unbalanced man who suffered forced sexual sterility under orders of the Nazi regime - watch as Rolfe straddles that line between defending his clients while still personifying his at-odds position on how he must do so. Rolfe treats the witness with kid gloves, as he knows there's a certain level of bastard he needs to obtain in order to render the witness's testimony as invalid.
The character of Rolfe and performance by Schell mirror the very idea behind the Nuremberg trials: Not everything is black and white. There are no easy answers.
There has been no film about the atrocities and subsequent condemnation of Nazi Germany more important than Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. Both culturally significant and cinematically brilliant, it will not only remain one of the greatest all-time films, but the greatest courtroom drama ever made, alongside Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. Interestingly, there's a scene in the film where an American journalist bemoans that he couldn't "give a story away" about the Nuremberg trials to American readers, as they had already become hardened and indifferent to the events of the war. And yet, fifty years later, Judgment at Nuremberg still has the power to shock, disgust, and educate - not only about what it was like to put a way of life on trial, but to live within its shadow.