Richard Widmark plays the role of a prosecutor in Stanley Kramer's… (United Artists )
By all reports, there was barely a sound after the world premiere 50 years ago in Berlin of "Judgment at Nuremberg," producer-director Stanley Kramer's historical drama. The epic was based on the "justice trial" in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947 against the Nazi regime and those complicit in enforcing government policies including the extermination of 6 million Jews.
It had been only 16 years since the end of World War II and 14 years since the infamous trials had taken place when Kramer decided to premiere the film in Germany "in the face of people who had been complicit and lived through the war," said Ellen Harrington, programmer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which will present a 50th-anniversary tribute to the film Tuesday night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater.
"Germany hadn't really gone through a dramatic reconciliation process," said Harrington. "He was not just making a movie for the rest of the world, he was making this movie to show to Germans. He staged his premiere and got stars Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Montgomery Clift to attend."
"The German people quietly filed out of the theater after the film," recalled Karen Kramer, widow of Stanley Kramer. "It didn't play [in Germany] for two years after that premiere. They took it hard. The German people didn't like what they saw. It was a very right thing and a very brave thing for Stanley to do."
Karen Kramer is among the special guests who will appear at the academy screening of the film, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won for Abby Mann's screenplay and lead actor for Maximilian Schell. Joining Kramer will be host Larry King; Oscar-winning documentarian Rabbi Marvin Hier ("Genocide," "The Long Way Home"), dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and Schell.
Mann originally had penned the 1959 live TV production of "Judgment at Nuremberg," which examines the complicity of the judges in the Nazi regime. Though the characters had been fictionalized, they were based on fact. Schell, who appeared in the live TV broadcast, reprised his role in the film as Hans Rolfe, the defense attorney; Tracy, who was also Oscar-nominated, was cast as the American judge assigned to preside over the trial; Oscar nominees Clift and Garland were victims of the Nazis; and Burt Lancaster played Ernst Janning, one of the justices on trial.
"You know this is a film that really for its time was incredibly daring," said Harrington. "It was not something that other filmmakers were interesting in tackling in terms of looking at the citizens of Germany and the nonmilitary component of Germany and the judicial structure and how they were complicit in enforcing all of these policies."
Kramer was never one to shy away from hot-button topics, whether it be racism ("The Defiant Ones," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?") or freedom of thought and expression ("Inherit the Wind").
"Nobody wanted to make it," said Karen Kramer. "People asked him, 'Nobody wants to see this movie. Did you have family in the Holocaust?' He said, 'No, I didn't, but I'm Jewish so I guess that makes it personal enough for me.'" (While not a blockbuster hit, the film did find an audience and garnered generally good reviews).
"Judgment at Nuremberg" was the first major motion picture to discuss the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jews by Nazis and include footage of the liberation of the concentration camps. "This was a groundbreaking film," said Hier.
Lancaster's character was actually based on famed justice Franz Schlegelberger. "He had a brilliant legal mind and was known as a lawyer who usually stood up for justice and was fair-minded," noted Hier. "As the Nazi regime took hold, his whole character changed and he lent his enormous prestige to the Nazis. He signed a lot of orders that sent people to their death — he sent a Jew to death because he was accused of hoarding eggs."
Karen Kramer points out that the film is relevant today because there are those who believe the Holocaust never happened. "I think the film is more needed now and more relevant because as shocked as we were by World War II and all of those millions of people being slaughtered, it's still going on. We have not come very far. I think some people may think I am cynical and maybe I am, but [holocausts] are still going on in different parts of the world."
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