25 February 2001 | buckboard
Revelation of Horror
This is a fine film by a fine director, but I can only hope that Stanley Kramer, in committing to full length film a television story, knew at heart the message his movie was trying to say. Because this is truly a message movie, for all mankind, but if the reviews I've read on this site are any indication, the message has been lost to some degree.
I've entitled my review "Revelation of Horror", but the horror revealed was not the Holocaust. That had already been revealed, although Kramer's film certainly lent its emotional impact. The revelation was a deep, true insight into how it happened, and the horror is that it happened in a civilized country. Few on this earth can imagine the true horror of Nazi Germany--I've read criticism of Widmark's Colonel Lawson as too preachy, but the character and the acting conveyed the mission of one who actually saw the horrors, beyond any scope we can identify with.
Kramer's achievement is that everything in this movie reminds us that the Nazi's used every facet of civilization, no matter how minute, to foster their extermination of their enemies, to inculcate it as an ordinary part of life. That was why judges were chosen to portray the issue of "obeying orders" versus "human decency." Herr Rolf is "forced" to defend the worst criminals imaginable, and yet his very defense and the principles behind it are abused in the process, used as a weapon against the very law they represent. Thus did the Nazis prevail with the willing acquiescence of the German people, and the abominable disregard of the rest of the world.
The other horror revealed in this film is the incessant excusing of it. Beyond the obvious pleas of the guilty ("We didn't know", or as one judge says to another, "Was it possible to kill like that?") are the multiplicity of subtle excuses: the reminder of centuries' old German culture, Rolf's plaintive cry of "unfairness" at the showing of the death camp films because of their inflammatory nature, the invocation of "Lili Marlene" throughout the film, to name just a few. While the song evokes sadness, a guilty German society meant for it to invoke sadness. Long before Germany had its country destroyed by bombs, it had its soul destroyed by Hitler.
Because this is a courtroom drama, respecting the sacred role of the Rule of Law in safeguarding humanity, almost every scene, every line is a statement that Nazi Germany perverted the Rule of Law, as did the very defense of the war criminals. But what is principle on a small scale of a single man being judged by society becomes outrage when used to defend the indefensible on an impossibly massive scale. Tracy's character at the film's end has a realization that this is so, as well as an awareness that what happened in Germany during the Third Reich was an Aristotelian tragedy for anyone touched by it, even remotely, so that any personal considerations (such as Mrs. Berthold) are made utterly impossible.
Rolf's speech about the guilty responsibility of the rest of the world was valid--but he was indicting the world to save one man. Where have we heard that in our own time? This quality about "Judgment at Nuremburg" makes its message forever fresh--and its warnings.