“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
– G.K. Chesterton
As I slowly turned off the television, I stared blankly off into space and asked myself, “What just happened?”. I had just finished watching the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg and I was dumbstruck. Why a movie produced sixteen years after the conclusion of World War II rehashing the atrocities of the Germans and the question of German guilt should be so gripping, moving, and utterly indispensable for its time, and for ours, is worthy of thoughtful consideration.
To begin, the horrors of National Socialism are unparalleled in human history. Never before or since has a group of men manipulated the levers of power, mobilized a mass following, and waged ruthless ethnic war from within and without. As wicked as the deeds are, it is hard to turn away because they always beg the questions of “Why?” and “How?”. And as hard as we try, fifty years later, we are still trying to find an answer. Judgment at Nuremberg brilliantly places these deeds and questions at the center of its plot.
Next, while the story of the War and National Socialism is sometimes reduced to cold, impersonal statistics, Judgment at Nuremberg is a story about individuals. And in such stories as in life comes individual guilt, individual accountability, individual integrity, and individual redemption. Spencer Tracy plays an avuncular widower judge (Dan Haywood) presiding over a locally unpopular trial of four “Nazified” judges in a time of emerging Cold War tensions. Judy Garland is cast as the linchpin witness (Irene Hoffman Wallner) to a seminal anti-Semitic ruling while Burt Lancaster portrays the stoic, yet internally conflicted Nazified judge Ernst Janning. If this cast wasn’t impressive enough, Marlene Dietrich, Werner Klemperer, and William Shatner all magnificently adorn the screen. But perhaps most compelling is Maximillian Schell’s portrayal of the Nazified judges’ defense attorney, Hans Rolfe. Rolfe is at once a young, idealistic, former pupil of the legendary judge, Ernst Janning, whom Rolfe has now, ironically, been asked to defend. At the same time, Rolfe is the crusader seeking to salvage (if not exonerate) his country’s past for the sake of its future. His is the lone voice in the courtroom asking the pressing, but uncomfortable questions, “Who carries the guilt?”, “Who pronounces it?”, and “By whose definition?”. Rolfe’s earnest intensity is so compelling that you almost WANT to agree with his reasoning, but can’t because the abhorrent truth remains. The answers to Rolfe’s questions would be curtly provided in a powerful courtroom rebuttal by his own client, Ernst Janning, and by a potent pronouncement by Judge Haywood (Spencer Tracy) to Janning in the privacy of Janning’s prison cell at the close of the film. These answers provide some satisfaction in that they deal with individuals and they deal with the uncompromising truth.
Which brings me to a final reason this film is as powerful today as when first released. There is a truth. There is a right and wrong. This is, at times, an uncomfortable assertion. It risks offending and it demands accountability – of nations, of cultures, and of individuals. This accountability can be a fearsome thing for it forces us to look at what we are responsible for AND how well we are carrying out those responsibilities. With respect to the film Judgment at Nuremberg, this fundamental belief in a universal right and wrong has ramifications for nations, but specifically for each individual, his conscience, and his soul. The film puts certain notions and assumptions regarding Truth and morality at the very forefront.
For example, there is a notion that no man can serve as judge of another’s actions because he too is a sinner, his nation too is a sinful nation, and that his supremacy in war does not indicate his supremacy in morals. This notion has one major flaw. It attempts to convince us that what is right and what is wrong – in effect, what is True and what is False – is in the eye of the beholder, is relative, and thus arbitrary. There is no Truth, it is argued. Rather there is only Power and Might which inflicts its version of the truth on the vanquished…that is, until the vanquished strengthen, rise, conquer, and inflict THEIR version of the truth on others. And around, and around it goes.
But unfortunately, this brutal, cynical Hobbesian worldview leaves us cold, empty, and dissatisfied. For even internationally, between cultures and faiths and peoples, whether we admit it or not, there is an enduring pride in doing the right and shame in doing the wrong. Lest we convince ourselves that we live amongst a majority of sociopathic, misanthropic people, we know – deeply – that there is a right and wrong respecting human life, liberty, and property. This is the crux and legacy of Judgment at Nuremberg.
In the final scene of the film, Nazified judge Ernst Janning lobs one last, earnest, private rationalization to Judge Haywood:
Janning: “Judge Haywood…The reason I asked you to come [to see me in my prison cell]…Those people. Those millions of people…I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it! You must believe it!”
To which Judge Haywood simply and acerbically replied:
Haywood: “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to die you knew to be innocent.”
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said:
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Judgment at Nuremberg is an extraordinary film with an enduring script and unparalleled acting. But even more, it is a film about the human heart. A heart divided between good and evil. May we never forget its lesson. May we always choose aright.