Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Judgment at Nuremberg – Capturing the Complexities of Mass Atrocity Trials on Film

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: Judgment at Nuremberg – Capturing the Complexities of Mass Atrocity Trials on Film

[Jonathan Hafetz is Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School. He is also the creator and host of the podcast, LawOnFilm.]

Portraying criminal trials for mass atrocities on screen is an inherently challenging task. Filmmakers must tackle the competing demands of historical accuracy and dramatic effect. And for the film to endure, it must somehow speak both to its specific context and to larger themes in way that ensures its continuing relevance over time. Films in this area can emphasize various dimensions of atrocity trials. Some, like Breaker Morant (1980, dir. Bruce Beresford), focus on the pressures faced by soldiers can cause them to commit war crimes as well as the kaleidoscope of perspectives on justice that swirl around warfare; others, like Argentina, 1985 (2022, dir. Santiago Mitre), explore how political and social forces can shape a country’s efforts to hold to its own leaders accountable. For this symposium, I’ve chosen to focus on Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a film that, despite its age, powerfully highlights many of the nuances and complexities surrounding the trial of mass atrocities.

Judgment at Nuremberg centers on the trial of Nazi judges before the U.S. military tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, following World War II. The film was directed by Stanley Kramer from a screenplay by Abby Mann (the all-star cast includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, and William Shatner). The film was based on United States v. Josef Alstoetter (more commonly known as the “Judges’ Trial” or “Justice Trial”), which involved the trial of Nazi judges and prosecutors for furthering the Nazi regime of persecution and murder through implementation of the racial purity laws. 

Shooting in black-and-white, Kramer and his cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo, sought to give Judgment at Nuremberg the feel of a documentary. Some of the film was shot on location in post-war Germany. The film also inserted actual U.S. Army Signal Corp footage of the concentration camps. Here, as elsewhere, however, the film engaged in some poetic license, as the actual footage was shown during the trial of the major Nazi war criminals by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (IMT), and not the later Judges’ Trial in the U.S. military zone (The film also compressed the number of defendants from 16 to 4 and excluded all the non-judges). But the changes served valuable filmic ends. For many, watching Judgment at Nuremberg was the first time they had seen such images. Today it is inconceivable that a movie—let alone one made well over a decade after the events in question—would be the first time that broad segments of the public saw graphic images of mass atrocities. In that respect, Judgment at Nuremberg offers a reminder of the role films can play in shaping perceptions and memory of events as well as how much public consumption of such images has changed in our media-saturated age.

Several aspects of the film’s depiction of international criminal trials remain particularly salient. Before Mann wrote the script, Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. counsel for the U.S. military prosecutions at Nuremberg, had suggested that Mann focus on the Judges’ Case rather than the trial of the major Nazi war criminals before the IMT.  Focusing on the Judges’ Case gave Mann an opportunity to dramatize the enduring conflict between individual and collective responsibility, which he does through the central character of Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster. A key part of the prosecution’s case against Janning (whose character is a composite and intended to be somewhat sympathetic) was inspired by real-life events involving a notoriously viscous German judge, Oswald Rothaug, who, among other things, sentenced an elderly Jewish man, Leo Katzenberger, to death for having sexual relations with a younger German woman, Irene Seiler (played in the film by Judy Garland), in violation of Nazi racial purity laws. When the prosecutor (played by Richard Widmark) introduces the footage of the Nazi death camps, it prompts an emotional and eloquent objection from Janning’s defense counsel (played by Maximillian Schell, who won a best actor Oscar for his performance). Janning accuses the prosecution of trying to implicate Janning—and by necessity, the German people as a whole—in the full horrors of the Holocaust without any evidence connecting them to the mass exterminations. That the film gives such an important role to defense counsel in a war crimes case is itself notable in a genre that ordinarily affords them less prominence.

Janning then pushes back against his own counsel and acknowledges responsibility. Janning admits that he (and other judges) knew enough about the Third Reich and should have done more to resist. In fact, Nazi judges were more mere functionaries who applied the law without questioning it. As Kevin Jon Heller explained in our recent podcast on the film, they were often active and willing participants in Nazi persecution and cruelty. In the Katzenberger case, for example, Rothaug engineered the defendant’s execution by using witness testimony that the defendant had visited Seiler at night, thus “exploit[ing]” wartime conditions (the “lights out” air raid precaution) and triggering an aggravating factor that authorized imposition of a death sentence. In the film’s final, powerful scene, Dan Haywood, the chief judge of the three-judge panel of Allied jurists (played by Spencer Tracy), visits Janning in his cell after rendering the guilty verdict. Janning explains to Haywood that he did not realize the Nazi persecution would lead to the deaths of millions; Haywood responds that once Janning knowingly sentenced an innocent man to die, he had embraced the possibility of such crimes. The scene at once adroitly conveys the film’s message of larger German complicity in the Holocaust—a controversial topic at the time—and the way ordinary people can contribute to a society’s descent into mass murder and genocide through their individual acts. 

Judgment at Nuremberg also captures the larger geopolitical backdrop of the period. By the time of the subsequent trials in U.S. military zone (there were 12 proceedings total), tensions with the Soviet Union had increased. As Jennifer Frost notes, Abby Mann accentuated these tensions by setting the film in 1948 rather than 1947 (the year of the actual Judges’ Case), thus tying the proceedings at Nuremberg to the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade and airlift that year. Such deviations, Frost explains, enabled Mann and Kramer to tell a larger historical truth about the post-war treatment of Nazi atrocities and, I would argue, about the politically contingent nature of war crimes trials more generally. The film references these mounting Cold War tensions at multiple points. In one scene, for example, it shows U.S. military officials engaged in an ex parte discussion with the prosecutor and chief judge, urging them to tread more lightly against the defendants. As Judgment at Nuremberg shows, U.S. priorities were quickly shifting from prosecuting Nazi atrocities to ensuring that a reconstructed Germany would be a strong ally in the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union—a similar dynamic to the one that influenced the U.S. treatment of alleged Japanese war criminals following the initial trial before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The placard at the film’s conclusion provides a telling statistic: by 1961, of the 99 defendants convicted and sentenced to prison in the subsequent U.S. military tribunals at Nuremberg, none was still serving his sentence.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Judgment at Nuremberg is how the film’s reception and perception evolved over time, often in connection with actual events. The film received a cool reception when it premiered in West Berlin in December 1961, suggesting the widespread lingering support for the Nazis and the distance German society still had to go to come to terms with its Nazi past, a process that took decades. 

The announcement of Adolf Eichmann’s guilty verdict and death sentence coincided with Judgment at Nuremberg’s premiere. The Maximillian Schell character’s powerful attack on the prosecution for showing the concentration camp footage in court resonated with contemporary critiques of the Eichmann trial by Hannah Arendt and others for sacrificing legal principles to pedagogical goals through the presentation of extensive witness testimony of Nazi atrocities without connecting it Eichmann himself. The film thus dramatizes the tensions between using atrocity trials for broader didactic purposes and the idea of trials as expressions of liberal legalism centered around individual culpability, as Judith Shklar and others have explained. 

When the film first aired on national television in the United States on March 7, 1965, as ABC’s Sunday Night Movie, the network interrupted the broadcast to show footage of the brutal beating of civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. The juxtaposition of images of Bloody Sunday in Selma with the trial of Nazis at Nuremberg was striking, although Judgment at Nuremberg had itself pointed to the dark connections between Nazism and segregation in America.  During the Judges’ Trial, Janning’s defense counsel alludes to the connections between Nazism and U.S. policies and views on race (a connection James Q. Whitman and others have demonstrated). He also notes how potential Allied war crimes (from the firebombing of Dresden to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) were not prosecuted—a connection the actual subsequent Nuremberg tribunals treated dismissively. Judgment at Nuremberg avoids any false equivalency with Nazi aggression and genocide, while still offering a nuanced picture of an atrocity trial. That it did so at the height of the Cold War, when Hollywood faced pressure to deliver consistently pro-American messages, redounds to its credit.

Judgment at Nuremberg thus suggests how a commercial film can capture many dimensions of atrocity trials and resonate with changing events over time. The film is particularly worth revisiting today, given how the allure of another “Nuremberg Moment” continues to shape thinking about Russian aggression and atrocities in Ukraine. The film reinforces that even the trials at Nuremberg, often elevated as the exemplar of international criminal justice, have a complex history all their own.

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