‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ — An Incredibly Disrespectful Review?

Hmmm, I might be going to hell for this one.

Is it possible for a film to be so worthy that it shoots out the other end and becomes ridiculously and unintentionally daft? Because I wasn’t expecting to be laughing so much during ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ which I did… a lot. It might be the silliest movie about Nazi Germany ever made, and that includes ‘Jojo Rabbit’ (2019).

‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ (1961) starts with relatively few issues as Spencer Tracy arrives in the German city to preside over a military tribunal of four German judges accused of crimes against humanity. Tracy’s character is aided by a U.S. Army Captain played by William Shatner and you know a movie is in trouble when the LEAST ridiculous thing in it is William Shatner.

Once the case starts we are presented with a string of witnesses, all played by Hollywood legends meaning that even though Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland (although especially Clift) give excellent performances their star-power and personal histories, which can’t help but come to the mind, result in a movie that says less about the horrors of living in Nazi Germany and more about the perils of living in Beverly Hills. Am I meant to be thinking this? Is this where my thoughts should be going? Maybe Richard Widmark can bring my attention back to the pertinent issues with his damning evidence of the atrocities.

Except he doesn’t and can’t. It’s not that Widmark gives a bad performance but being Richard Widmark he can’t help but come across as… well… as Richard Widmark. I mean, he IS Richard Widmark so it’s not like he can help it and his performance is great but I’m just not sure it’s the correct one for this movie. He’s just always too much fun to watch. He’s like Frank Gorshin’s The Riddler which is fine but maybe not in a movie about the Final Solution, so I found it hard to be moved by the terrible events he was showing us because he was Widmarking all over the place. It was at this moment I had the horrible feeling I wasn’t starting to take the proceedings I was watching terribly seriously. Oh well, here comes Burt Lancaster who has said hardly anything up until now and has just been sitting there looking stern. Maybe good old Burt can bring my attention back to the pertinent issues.

So Burt Lancaster, one of the accused Nazi judges, solemnly takes the stand, opens his mouth and… delivers one of the most outrageous Irish accents in all of cinema history. Oh god, please don’t do this as this is when I burst out laughing and didn’t stop. I had tears rolling down my face because it’s impossible to take Burt Lancaster seriously as a German Nazi accused of war crimes when he sounds like he’s in an episode of ‘Father Ted’. And the longer he talked the more I laughed. It’s a shockingly executed scene and, in purely filmmaking terms, more horrific than any of the footage that Widmark had just shown us, which is somewhat unsettling. It was also the moment I gave in and had to admit that I would never be able to take this movie seriously in the slightest. There’s even a moment when I’m convinced Maximillan Schell is trying not to corpse. Is that why he won the Oscar? For being able not to burst out laughing during Lancaster’s performance? If so, he absolutely deserved his win.

Fortunately Schell steps up and rescues the film although I was laughing even harder by this point because I’d just realised that the headphones the cast were wearing made everyone look like the Smash instant potato robots and that I was now laughing like one of those metal, mash eating maniacs. Oh dear, I might be going to hell for this. And I’m not even going to mention the fact that because there’s a sort of flirtation going on outside the courthouse between Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich it sometimes looks as though Tracy’s character wants everything to be over and done with just so he can get laid.

Kramer directing doesn’t help much either, sometimes feeling like a Zucker Brothers’ movie played straight, and boy, Kramer sure does love his significant pans and dollies and there are a lot of significant pans and dollies in this movie. Either way, I was always aware that this was made by the same guy who made another three hour long start-studded movie starring Spencer Tracy and that’s ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963) except I think I might have actually laughed more during this than his actual comedy. Maybe Elia Kazan should’ve directed this film?

Anyway, all of this might make it seem I didn’t like the film but I actually found it rather enjoyable, although it’s precisely that fact that makes me so uncomfortable as I’m pretty sure that’s not the emotion I should have experienced watching this. It’s well made, well acted (mostly), expertly handled and with a fine script but with such self-worthiness, and especially Burt Lancaster’s performance, it was a movie about Nazi Germany I took as seriously as ‘Top Secret!’ (1984).

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.