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REWIND : German Conscience Takes the Stand in 'Judgment'

April 28, 1994|PATRICK MOTT

What happened to the Nazi regime the day after Oskar Schindler trundled away from his munitions factory for the last time, one step ahead of the advancing Soviet army?

The answer lies, in large measure, in the crackling 1961 courtroom drama "Judgment at Nuremberg," an ensemble vehicle for some of the most prominent stars of the early 1960s that still manages to keep the attention riveted on the insidious moral vacuum that became the reason for the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Where "Schindler's List" addressed itself, a half-century after the fact, to the "what" of the Holocaust, "Judgment at Nuremberg" draws on the "why"--in this case, why would a group of highly respected German judges turn their backs on the concepts they once revered and preside during the war over a series of infamous kangaroo courts, drumhead courts-martial and false condemnations that resulted in the deaths of thousands?

Spencer Tracy, brilliant as the presiding American judge at the trials of the German judges, finds that the answers aren't easy. Playing the simple Maine jurist with understated folksy grace and passion, Tracy must sort out impassioned arguments by American prosecutor Richard Widmark and German defense attorney Maximilian Schell (who won an Oscar for this role) while being jolted by testimony from a mentally unbalanced victim (Montgomery Clift) and a persecuted hausfrau (Judy Garland). As he grapples with the demons of Germany's recent past, he is wooed circumspectly by the widow (Marlene Dietrich) of an executed German general and saddened by the descent into corruption of the most famous defendant in the dock before him (Burt Lancaster).

Stanley Kramer's direction manages to keep this 178-minute film consistently taut, and Abby Mann's Oscar-winning screenplay not only echoes the still-fresh moral outrage of the time, but also paints a picture of a Germany agonizingly trying--and sometimes failing--to come to grips with the memory of all-too-recent horrors.

"Judgment at Nuremberg" makes a fine, if disturbing, companion to "Schindler's List."

"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), directed by Stanley Kramer. 178 minutes. Not rated.

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