I’ll get to those words but first the backstory, as it were.
Last night I watched the film Judgment At Nuremberg. I’m not sure how it came to be on my watch list recently. It’s one of those films that I either never got around to seeing or saw it so long ago that I’d forgotten it. It was mesmerizing.
In the film, released in 1961, Judge Dan Haywood comes to Nuremberg, Germany in 1948 and presides over a tribunal judging four Nazi judges for their actions during the war. This is a fictionalized version of real events and real cases. The black and white film has a running time of 3 hours and 6 minutes and there’s not a second of wasted footage in the film. It’s intense and thought-provoking. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won two – adapted screenplay (Abby Mann) and actor (Maximilian Schell).
Directed by Stanley Kramer (On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and written by Abby Mann and featuring incredibly photography from the great Ernest Laszlo, this is a fictionalized version of real events and real cases.
The cast? Packed to the rafters. As you can see in the poster above – Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift … and William Shatner! Clift was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, and that year he was up against Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott (both in The Hustler) and Peter Falk (Pocketful of Miracles) and they all somehow lost to George Chakiris for West Side Story! Judy Garland is also amazing in this film – well, everyone is.
Burt Lancaster plays Judge Ernst Janning. The way the film puts it, his character represents the best and brightest judge that Germany ever had, a beacon of justice … who put a swastika on his judge’s robe and sentenced people to sterilization and death when called to by the Nazi party. Lancaster is silent for much of the film, a glaring presence in the courtroom after announcing that he doesn’t recognize the tribunal’s authority to pass judgment on him. And then, two thirds of the way into the film, he finally speaks up, in a great monologue that’s worth sharing with you (slightly edited):
There was a fever over the land. A fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, and fear of ourselves.
Only when you understand that – can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’ It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb.
What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded… sooner or later. The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows. We will go forward. Forward is the great password.
And history tells how well we succeeded, your honor. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The very elements of hate and power about Hitler that mesmerized Germany, mesmerized the world! We found ourselves with sudden powerful allies. Things that had been denied to us as a democracy were open to us now. The world said ‘go ahead, take it, take it! Take Sudetenland, take the Rhineland – remilitarize it – take all of Austria, take it!
And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life.
Your honor, I was content to sit silent during this trial. I was content to tend my roses. I was even content to let counsel try to save my name, until I realized that in order to save it, he would have to raise the specter again. You have seen him do it – he has done it here in this courtroom. He has suggested that the Third Reich worked for the benefit of people. He has suggested that we sterilized men for the welfare of the country. He has suggested that perhaps the old Jew did sleep with the sixteen year old girl, after all. Once more it is being done for love of country.
It is not easy to tell the truth; but if there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it… whatever the pain and humiliation.
My counsel would have you believe we were not aware of the concentration camps. Not aware. Where were we? Where were we when Hitler began shrieking his hate in Reichstag? Where were we when our neighbors were being dragged out in the middle of the night to Dachau? Where were we when every village in Germany has a railroad terminal where cattle cars were filled with children being carried out to their extermination! Where were we when they cried out in the night to us. Deaf, dumb, blind!
I am going to tell them the truth. I am going to tell them the truth if the whole world conspires against it. I am going to tell them the truth about their Ministry of Justice. Werner Lammpe, an old man who cries into his Bible now, an old man who profited by the property expropriation of every man he sent to a concentration camp. Friedrich Hofstetter, the “good German” who knew how to take orders, who sent men before him to be sterilized like so many digits. Emil Hahn, the decayed, corrupt bigot, obsessed by the evil within himself. And Ernst Janning, worse than any of them because he knew what they were, and he went along with them. Ernst Janning: Who made his life excrement, because he walked with them.
Some of you might see the parallels in this almost-60-year old film to America today.
“Lift your heads! Make America great again! Be proud to be American! There are devils among us. Mexicans, Muslims, Pot Smokers, Transgenders! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.”
Ernst Janning: Judge Haywood… the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it, you must believe it!
Judge Dan Haywood: Herr Janning, it “came to that” the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
I just hope there isn’t a need to remake this film in an American setting in a few years.