Judgement at Nuremberg at 60: how times, and America, have changed

Image: Shatnerstoupee.blogspot.com

In a time of questionable American integrity, it’s obvious if not practical to look to Hollywood for reassurance.

The image of the stars and stripes flying over battlefields, courtrooms and schoolyards has been burned into the minds of generations by the American film industry.

Justice, freedom, equality, citizenship, and heaven help us, democracy, have been the associated principles and the marketing has worked staggeringly well.

Take director Stanley Kramer’s 1961 courtroom drama, Judgement at Nuremberg.

Celebrating its 60th anniversay this year, Nuremberg was a compelling film to revisit in 2016 after President Trump’s election and is once again in 2021 after the January 6, Capitol riots.

This atmospheric piece of black and white cinema grows more nostalgic with every viewing, but its impact has altered with age.

It’s a time capsule of American exceptionalism produced for an era and an audience with a kinder definition of what America was.

A lengthy, somewhat rambling movie, Nuremberg survives on top 100 cinema lists in the 21st century in part because of the artists involved.

A list of icons giving career high performances populate its frames.

Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Maximillian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, even a young William Shatner.

But they are not all that makes Nuremberg memorable.

For a courtroom drama, the political backdrop is jarring even 60 years on.

Set in the American zone of Germany in 1948, the movie presents a fictionalised version of one of the famous Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Spencer Tracy plays a veteran American justice brought in to preside over the prosecution of four senior Nazi judges accused of crimes against humanity.

Europe is steadily collapsing around the Americans as the case unfolds.

The USSR is tightening its grip on Eastern Europe and there is an urgent need for support from the German people in securing a capitalist, Western power bloc.

Tracy and his colleagues are faced with daily pressure to forgive past crimes and secure America’s future as a superpower in the face of a communist threat.

Spencer Tracy and Marlene Dietrich in Judgement at Nuremberg. Tracy’s crusty, plainspoken Judge Dan Heywood represented the Hollywood ideal of the average yet exceptional American with Dietrich as his redemption obsessed German love interest.

The case itself involves grim images of concentration camps and stories of German’s abused, sterilised, and murdered in the name of Aryan supremacy.

Tracy’s final reading of the inevitable guilty verdict is a cinematic barnburner.

“Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth and the value of a single human being.”

Heady words.

In December 1961 when Nuremberg was released, McCarthyism was only three years in the past and the Selma-Montgomery marches were still four years away.

Justice, truth and the value of a single human being differed according to skin colour, gender and sexual orientation in America long before 1961 or 1948.

They still differ in 2021, only now the idea of American exceptionalism is on life support after decades of neglect and abuse.

Modern Hollywood is more likely to wrap a fictional superhero in the flag than a political figure and with good reason.

Watching Nuremberg is difficult in a time when the US Department of Homeland Security issues domestic terror alerts about fascist American militias.

Marlene Dietrich plays an aristocratic German widow determined to convince the American occupiers the German people are not all monsters.

As she talks with Tracy’s character about the holocaust, she delivers a newly hair-raising line as she points out World War II involved atrocities “on both sides.”

Tracy’s stony visage is her only reply. How times have changed.

It’s a familiar and well executed Hollywood trope, not even America’s greatest sins could match the horror wrought by her enemies.

Richard Widmark plays an American officer who narrates a harrowing series of images his battalion took as they liberated the concentration camp Dachau.

It’s especially chilling as you recall the Republican Party now enfranchises a Congresswoman who believes Jewish space lasers started 2018’s California bushfires.

21st century cynicism might consider Nuremberg and movies like it to be self-enabling propaganda for a privileged audience.

It speaks to Hollywood’s skill for marketing the American Dream that the movies characters still appear as fragile and well-intentioned now as they did 60 years ago.

It also explains the noisy optimism of some Americans that a dysfunctional, centrist political party can still right all their domestic wrongs and win the day in the face of such violent extremes.

By the time Nuremberg celebrates its 80th anniversary it will either remain a testament to American resilience and optimism, or a nostalgic forgery of a self-ascribed golden age.

In 2021, Judgement at Nuremberg is a sad movie, but for different reasons than may have originally been intended.