Like many other independent-minded directors working in the US at the time, Kramer didn’t have the freedom to be an auteur in the true sense of the word. Given that he wanted his films to reach a wide audience, his goals had to be realised while working within the constraints of the studio system. This often meant populating his films with well-known actors (some of whom were, in the Hollywood tradition of the period, Star Personalities – associated with a certain type of role in the average moviegoer’s mind). And though the scripts that he worked with were weightier and more nuanced than those in the typical studio film, critics haven’t always been kind to him – his work has sometimes been dismissed as bloated and self-conscious, with contrived resolutions and simplistic treatment of important issues. In short, “Hollywoodised”.
In the interview I mentioned, Kramer himself shows humility and introspection about these aspects of his career. An excerpt:
“When I began work as a filmmaker I wanted desperately to be an artist. From my standpoint, I never came close. The reason was that I was born into film at a time when to make my mark and to do what I wanted to do, I had to take on the establishment within the Hollywood firmament…To get On the Beach made, I made a deal with United Artists that I would use two stars and UA would finance the picture. This has happened to me twenty times. I always had to work on such large canvases to get the film made at all…It’s commendable that Kramer could make these self-critical remarks, but I think he’s being hard on himself. His best work still holds up quite well today (unless your idea of good cinema is restricted to indie films that are entirely uncorrupted by studio money). Among the movies that he directed, the one I’m fondest of is Judgment at Nuremberg, his stark three-hour epic about the Nazi war trials shortly after the end of WWII.
I didn’t want Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On the Beach because they made it much less realistic for me. The presence of the stars made the film less powerful, less to the point…For me, a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour which was about being able to sustain life on a planet faced with atomic warfare, was more powerful than On the Beach. The difference is that I’m an American [studio director]. I made On the Beach and it was seen by millions of people. Hiroshima Mon Amour got a limited release and was seen by a select audience.”
I first saw it as a 14-year-old when I was trudging from one video library to another with the Leonard Maltin Movie and Video Guide in my hand, picking up any pre-1970s movie that the reviewer had given a rating of 3 or more stars (how strange this seems, given my supercilious attitude to the rating system now). I loved the film unqualifiedly back then. Watching it allowed me to combine two seemingly irreconciliable interests: a) the historical period in question – WWII, the Holocaust and its aftermath, and b) the careers of actors such as Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift.
Shot in austere black and white, Judgment at Nuremberg opens with the ageing Judge Haywood (Tracy), an American freshly arrived in Nuremberg, being driven to his quarters. Haywood looks around him at this wasted city that hosted grand Nazi rallies at the height of the Third Reich; later, he will go for a walk in a deserted quarter, observe the wary quietness of the few people around, and imagine hearing Hitler’s rabble-rousing speeches – the sense of decay is almost palpable, and resentment and guilt seem to exist side by side.
But most of the action in this fictionalised version of the Nuremberg Trials takes place in the courtroom, where Haywood is presiding over the trials of four Nazi judges, men of influence and high standing during the Nazi regime but now war criminals being asked to account for their actions. Among the accused is the solemn Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a respected figure in his day and central to the film’s theme that in times of severe political change and uncertainty, even well-intentioned people can end up doing things foreign to their essential natures. Other principals include the attorneys for the defence and the prosecution, and witnesses such as a baker who was forcibly sterilised by the Nazis and a hausfrau whose elderly Jewish friend was put to death on the charge of having an “improper” relationship with her.
There are no villains in Judgment at Nuremberg, or rather, there are no individual villains: as screenwriter Abby Mann says in an interview on the DVD, “the film’s real villain is patriotism” – that is, people believing that they needed to do certain things collectively for the good of their country or state, without examining their consciences. And the idea of shared guilt is central to the script. (Some scenes reminded me of the great ending of Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, where people at different levels – concentration camp guards, commandants, generals – shift the responsibility for the Holocaust on to someone else, and the narrator asks plaintively, “Who is responsible?”)
But the film doesn’t cop out when it comes to fixing responsibility. In what may seem a contrived resolution, the courtroom drama climaxes with Ernst Janning responding to the call of his conscience and making a tidy little speech condemning himself and his associates for complying with events that they knew were wrong. Some critics have suggested that this scene, involving as it does one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Burt Lancaster, is a sympathy-generator. But this is a ludicrous allegation, for just a few minutes earlier we have been shown documentary footage of the brutalities of the Nazi regime (this is hard-hitting stuff straight out of the concentration camps – certainly not something you’d expect to see in a mainstream Hollywood film of the time). Though the film has sympathy for people who were swept along by the dark current of history and made momentary decisions that they would regret for the rest of their lives, at no point does it suggest that the guilty mustn’t be held accountable.
What the script does manage to convey is the ambiguity surrounding the actions of practically everyone involved in the rise of Nazi Germany. When Judge Haywood pronounces his verdict at the end, we agree with his insistence on making individuals accountable for their acts; but at the same time we never lose sight of the points the defence attorney makes in his closing speech – about moral relativism, about Churchill’s praise of Hitler while the Third Reich was building its strength, about American complicity in the growth of industrial Germany, about the long and complex series of events that allowed the horrors of Auschwitz to take place.
Today, more than 15 years after I first watched Judgment at Nuremberg, it’s easier for me to see the flaws – for instance, that some scenes are static and heavy-handed. But it was very courageous for the time, and it certainly didn’t pander shamelessly to the box-office or attempt to spoon-feed a mass audience. And while some of the courtroom scenes are clumsily shot (you can almost sense that the cameraman was running out of places to put his equipment in this claustrophobic setting), it still looks good as a whole and its most powerful moments haven't dated at all.
Kramer says in his interview:
Do you think United Artists wanted to make Judgment at Nuremberg, the story of a Nazi trial? They weren’t at all interested in those people in the ovens and the crooked judges. I studded it with stars to get it made as a film so that I would reach out to a mass audience.Given those conditions, I think he did extremely well. It’s all very well to condemn a film for having too many big names in it, but why not simply judge the performances on their own terms? Watching Judgment at Nuremberg, hardly ever does one get the impression that star power is intruding on the film’s basic function. Spencer Tracy, that master of understatement, is the anchor here as the old judge, showing as he so often did that great acting doesn’t have to be about flashy, attention-grabbing moments (the sort that run with the nomination announcements at award shows) or playing a variety of characters with different looks and accents. In Tracy’s best work, everything could hinge on a single glance, or on the way his character listened to and responded to something said by someone else – and there are many such moments in this film; the moral dilemmas Judge Haywood faces give the actor a lot of scope for internalising his feelings.
There isn’t a major weak link in the cast. The prosecuting attorney is played by Richard Widmark, another consummate professional, the fiery defence attorney Hans Rolfe is played by Maximilian Schell (who won the best actor Oscar for this role despite being the least-known member of the cast – or perhaps because of it). There are short but very effective cameos by Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift as Nazi-regime victims who testify in court. (If you’re at all interested in acting styles, it’s fun to contrast Clift’s attention-grabbing Method performance with Tracy’s naturalistic one.) And on the sidelines is the magnificent Marlene Dietrich (all of 60 at the time but looking ageless as ever) as a German general’s widow who forms a wary friendship with Judge Haywood.
Burt Lancaster is the only member of the cast who seems out of place to me, but even his casting wasn’t simply a means of adding star value to the film. Around this time Lancaster had in fact started branching out into character roles – something he would do very successfully in films like Birdman of Alcatraz, The Leopard and The Swimmer. (That said, it would have been brilliant if Kramer had got Laurence Olivier – his first choice – to do the role.)
P.S. I have conflicting views on this idea of star power undermining the credibility of films that deal with social issues, or that are “realistic” in the usual sense of that word. In this post, I mentioned that the non-mainstream Amitabh Bachchan starrer Main Azaad Hoon, his honest attempt at doing something different, didn’t work for me because much as I adored AB, I could never see him as John Doe or Everyman. The quality of Amitabh’s performance was beside the point, since his reputation and screen image would be a mental block for a viewer regardless: for the film to truly achieve what it wanted to achieve, the lead role would have had to be played by an unknown actor, or at least someone who didn’t have iconic status.
However, attractive though this idea is – that star personalities shouldn’t be allowed to mix with Serious Cinema – it’s also very exclusivist, besides being impracticable of course. Another post on that sometime.