The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on Film

Introduction of Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg
IU Cinema
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
December 2, 2013

Introduction and Acknowledgements

Thank you, Jon [Vickers].

Let me begin by once again commending Jon and the staff of the Indiana University Cinema for the Cinema’s tremendous success. The Cinema will celebrate its third anniversary next month. In these first three years of operation the Cinema has hosted hundreds of free screenings and events and has welcomed scores of guests from the film-industry and academia who delivered lectures or participated in interviews onstage. The Cinema is, without question, one of the finest university cinemas in the nation, and it has quickly become one of the jewels of the Bloomington campus.

Its success is due, in large measure, to the creativity and innovation that Jon brings to his role as director. From the rare opportunity to view silent films accompanied by live music to the recent success of the Orphans Midwest Film Symposium—the first symposium devoted to orphaned films to ever be held in the Midwest—Jon has established the IU Cinema as the home of some of the most innovative programming in the country.

I’m delighted to be here tonight to say a few words about the films I selected as part of the “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” series and, particularly, the final film in the series—Judgment at Nuremberg.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on Film

Over the last 60 years, the Third Reich has, of course, been the subject of a plethora of documentaries and feature films. These films have helped audiences around the world remember and reflect upon the terrible legacy of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. They help us reflect on a time when our very civilization, with all that is best and most valuable and noble about it, was, for perhaps the first time since the Mongol Conquest, seriously in danger of disappearing.

The five films I chose to comprise this President’s Choice film series depict some of the most important moments in the rise and collapse of the Third Reich.

Of course, the Nazis themselves famously made use of cinema as part of their elaborate propaganda system. The overtly propagandistic films produced during the reign of the National Socialist Party are now reminders of one of film history's darkest hours.

In August, to begin this series, the Cinema screened Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film, Triumph of the Will, which Roger Ebert called “one of the most historically important documentaries ever made.”1 The film documents the 1934 Nazi Party congress and rally in Nuremberg, and helps us to understand, as best we can, the nationalist hysteria in which the German people were swept up.

In September, Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 film, Stalingrad, was screened. It depicts the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a major turning point in the European theater of World War II. It was the fiercest and bloodiest battle in military history, with more than 1.5 million casualties, and it was the first major defeat for Nazi Germany. It was the Apocalypse for the Wehrmacht.  The film was notable for its depiction, in excruciating detail, of the brutality of the war.

In October, the Steven Spielberg epic, Schindler’s List was screened. Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, it was the recipient of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Score. It tells the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler, who employed more than a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees in his factories during the Holocaust, thereby saving their lives.

Last month, the 2004 German film Downfall was screened. It tells the story of the last 12 days of Hitler's life in his bunker in Berlin—including his suicide alongside Eva Braun—while advancing Soviet troops pulverized the city through bombardment. Prior to Downfall, portraying Hitler on film had been a taboo in German cinema. The film also engendered controversy because it included a portrayal of the “human” side of Hitler. The film was ranked 48th on Empire magazine’s list of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema.

Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg 

The film you are about to see tonight, Judgment at Nuremberg, was praised by one critic at the time of its premiere as “a work of intrinsic historical importance, timeless philosophical merit, and a grim reminder of man's responsibility to denounce grave evils of which he is aware.”

The film is a dramatized version of one of the series of trials that were held by an international tribunal in Nuremberg in 1948, after the end of World War II and after the world had become aware of the full extent of the war crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich. In particular, the film dramatizes what was known as the Justice Trial—the trial of 16 German judges and prosecutors. Central to the film is the question of what responsibility these judges had for enforcing laws that were grossly unjust, but arguably binding.

The film, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, was directed by Stanley Kramer, who would go on to direct Ship of Fools and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Nine months before the film’s premiere, an article in the entertainment trade magazine, Variety, questioned whether a non-spectacular treatment of a serious subject dealing with moral principles could succeed at the box office.2 Kramer certainly believed that it could, but he confessed that he filled the cast with stars in order to broaden its appeal.

The star-studded cast includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Maximilian Schell (who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role), Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland. 

Spencer Tracy gives a strikingly powerful performance as the American judge on the tribunal, a retired justice from Maine, who brings to Nuremberg what we might call “traditional Midwestern values”: humility, honesty, an appreciation of the importance of community, and a commitment to the principle that injustice and suffering should not be tolerated.

In fact, after completing the film, Tracy said that he had just made the finest movie of his career, and he was going to retire. He later amended that to say he would make no more pictures "except the good ones Stanley does."3 And he was true to his word. He appeared in only two more films: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, both produced and directed by Kramer.

Just as Downfall was controversial as recently as 2004 because of concerns that audiences might not be ready to see Hitler portrayed as a human being—or to see him portrayed onscreen at all—there were lingering questions about whether audiences were ready to deal with the issues presented in Judgment at Nuremberg.

This was particularly true when Abby Mann—who received the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay—first began writing Judgment in 1957 for television’s Playhouse 90. According to Mann, “it was not yet acceptable either in America or Europe to speak of German guilt or the victims of Nazi Germany.”4

However, as Judith Doneson points out in her book, The Holocaust in American Film, “by 1960, certain events had occurred that in 1957 were not yet foreseeable. With 1960,” she writes, “came the end of the injustice of the McCarthy era, the media penetration of the Eichmann trial, and the rise of the civil rights movement in America.”5

In fact, the film premiered on December 14th, 1961—just three days after Adolf Eichman was convicted on 15 criminal counts, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes against the Jewish people—and the day before he received the first and only death sentence in Israel’s history. 

I should note, too, that, earlier this fall, the Cinema screened the excellent film, Hannah Arendt, about the German-American political theorist who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her reporting on the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker.

Arendt was also the lover of the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who disgraced himself as the President of Freiburg University by embracing the Nazis and Nazism.

Judith Doneson goes on to say that Judgment at Nuremberg’s “metaphorical content on the discourse of justice, so very relevant to Americans, created an atmosphere of …‘readiness’; Americans were indeed ready to deal with German guilt on the level of metaphor for much of what was occurring in contemporary society.”6

The film also includes actual footage from German concentration camps, which is as disturbing today as it was 52 years ago.

As Hollis Alpert wrote in Saturday Review in 1961: "the success of [Kramer's film] …is twofold: he has put on the screen an entirely absorbing story, and he has provided thoughtful insights into the nature of Nazism and its hold on the German people."7

I hope you will agree that—even more than 50 years since audiences first viewed the film—Judgment at Nuremberg is still an absorbing story. And I hope that tonight’s viewing will lead to your own thoughtful insights.

Enjoy the film.

Source Notes

  1. Roger Ebert, "Great Movie: Triumph of the Will," June 26, 2008, rogerebert.com, Accessed November 12, 2013, URL: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-triumph-of-the-will-1935

  2. Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film, (Syracuse University Press, 2002), 94-97.

  3. Rob Nixon, "Pop Culture 101: Judgment at Nuremberg," Turner Classic Movies, Accessed November 27, 2012, URL: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/288385|0/Pop-Culture-101-Judgment-at-Nuremberg.html

  4. Doneson, 94-97

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review, 1961, as quoted on Turner Classic Movies: Judgment at Nuremberg, Accessed November 25, 2013, URL: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/22842/Judgment-at-Nuremberg/articles.html