Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): Kramer’s Courtroom Drama

Judgemet at Nuremberg is producer-director Stanley Kramer’s ambitious attempt to appraise the guilt and responsibility of the Germans for Hitler’s Third Reich through.

Despite its honorable intent, the movie unfolds as a rather conventional courtroom melodrama, replete with lengthy message-speeches, though occasionally containing genuinely emotional moments.

It begins with the arrival of Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy, well cast), a retired judge from Maine, in Nuremberg, Germany, upon being appointed to an American court that puts on trial four former Nazi jurists: Ernst, Emil Hahn, Werner Lammpe, and Friedrich Hoftstetter. Hans Rolfe (the young, handsome Maximillian Schell) is their defense counsel. After a long trial, the four are found guilty and given life sentences, but with the cynical implication that none will serve longer than seven years before they are released.

The film raises many questions that remain have remained unanswered, among them the post-war appeasement of former German enemies by the Allies to withstand the Soviet Union and the responsibility of many others besides the Germans for the rise of Hitler, including the U.S. industrialists, Russia, the Vatican, and even Winston Churchill, who endorsed the Nazi leader in a 1937 speech.

However, Kramer plays it safe and traditional, fearing the suggestion of any direct responsibility for the Holocaust. Nor does he offer fresh perspective on the past or present. By the time the film was released, in 1961, the more urgent global problem was the nuclear armaments and the Cold War between East and West.

Nonetheless, usually, Hollywood backs away from controversial subjects, and Kramer should be commended to tackling this issue even if he takes middle-of-the-road approach.

The excessive running time was criticized at the time, with some reviewers claiming that the original 1959 TV Playhouse 90 production of the same story, also scripted by Abby Mann, had achieved stronger impact in half of that running time.

Maximilian Schell, who repeated his original TV role as the fiery, nationalist German, gave the standout performance, for which he was rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar, beating out fellow actor Tracy, who was also nominated. Schell’s speech toward the end is a high point of the melodrama, in which questions the victors right to judge the vanquished by saying: Is Hiroshima the superior morality

Tracy is an excellent choice for representing the moral center, or middle-America. With his customary rock-ribbed, gently humorous, stern but compassionate demeanor, he is genuinely troubled by the whole trial and makes it his private effort during his stay to question Germans of the Nazi era.

Among those he befriends is Marlene Dietrich, who plays with conviction a role that must have hit close home, being German herself; she left Berlin in 1929 for Hollywood and never returned.

Tracy’s concluding speech about jutsice and the American system of the law, which is 11 minute long, was done in one take (utlizing two cameras).

Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland received supporting acting Oscar nominations for playing troubled victims, albeit of a different kind.

Judy gives a standout performance as Irene Hoffman, a young woman who’s called to the stand to testify that a former friend, an elderly Jew, was falsely accused of being sexually intimate with her, thereby “polluting the Aryan race.”  The Jew was later executed.

Just before leaving, Tracy calls Dietrich to say goodbye.  The telephone rings and rings, but she does not pick up. The film ends with a touching farewell between Tracy’s Judge Haywood and Lancaster’s defendant Janning who, sentenced to a life in prison, justifies Haywood’s verdict.

A title card, which is both cynical and ironic (but factual), informs us that 99 Nazis were sentenced by the American Tribunal to life imprisonment in the Nuremberg trials in 1949, but as of 1960, none remained in prison (some served only five years).

For the record: 

In the TV production, directed by George Roy Hill (who later became a filmmaker) Claude Rains played Judge Haywood, Paul Lukas was Janning, and Maximillian Schell, as noted, was the lawyer for the defense

Oscar Nominations:


Director: Stanley Kramer

Actor: Spencer Tracy

Actor: Maxmillian Schell

Supporting Actor: Montgomery Clift

Supporting Actress: Judy Garland

Screenplay (Adapted): Abby Mann


Art Direction

Film Editing

Costume Design

Oscar Awards: 2

Actor: Maximillian Schell



Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy)
Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell)
Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster)
Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark)
Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich)
Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland)
Rudolf Petersen (Montgomery Clift)
Senator Burkette (Ed Binns)
Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer0
Werner Lammpe (Torben Meyer)
Friedrich Hofstetter (Martin Brandt)


United Artists
Released: December 1961
Running Time: 178 Minutes

Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Abby Mann
Camera; Ernest Laszlo
Editing: Fred Knudtson
Music: Ernest gold
Costumes: Joe King