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Pop Culture 101 - Judgment at Nuremberg
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suppliedTitle,Judgment at Nuremberg


The prestige bestowed on the TV production of Judgment at Nuremberg, and the subsequent move to make a big budget movie of it, were bolstered by the publication of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum in 1959 and war correspondent William L. Shirer's best seller The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960.

Judgment at Nuremberg delivered on a frequent expectation of Spencer Tracy's film roles: powerful, long speeches––frequently captured in single takes––that usually state the films' themes and ideas as political or intellectual arguments. One such early example is the radio harangue his character, a presidential candidate, gives at the end of State of the Union (1948). As the Clarence Darrow-inspired character in Stanley Kramer's Inherit the Wind (1960), Tracy gives a single-take jury summation that lasts ten minutes. He beats his own record in Judgment at Nuremberg with a courtroom speech that lasts nearly 14 minutes. His last such speech would come at the climax of his final film appearance, again for Kramer, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

During a stroll through the city that Haywood (Spencer Tracy) takes with Mme. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), the strains of the song "Lili Marlene" can be heard in the background. Dietrich, who made the song famous during World War II, hums a few bars and explains the German lyrics to Tracy.

The real-life American presiding judge on whom Tracy's character was based, Francis Biddle of Massachusetts, published a book about the trials in 1962, In Brief Authority. Among the many accounts written about the trials, one of the most praised has been Bradley F. Smith's 1977 book Reaching Judgment at Nuremberg: The Untold Story of How the Nazi War Criminals Were Judged.

Two documentaries were made about the war trials at the time they occurred That Justice Be Done (1945, US) and The Nuremberg Trials (1947, USSR).

The story was first presented on TV in 1959 as an episode of the live dramatic anthology series Playhouse 90. The cast featured Claude Rains as Judge Dan Haywood (played on film by Spencer Tracy), Paul Lukas as German judge Ernst Janning (the Burt Lancaster role), and Melvyn Douglas as General Parker, a character who does not appear in the film version under that same name.

Rains became so moved performing Judgment at Nuremberg on live TV that his eyes teared up and he almost couldn't continue.

Maximilian Schell played the role of defense attorney Hans Rolfe in both the television and film versions of the story. In a 2004 videotaped conversation with writer Abby Mann, Schell spoke highly of the TV version and wondered if it didn't do more justice to Mann's story than the film did.

In both versions of Judgment at Nuremberg, Schell has a line about Winston Churchill's praise of Hitler in the late 1930s; on television, he was so nervous that he got confused and said Churchill's statements were made in 1939; this resulted in stern comments from the British Embassy who corrected him, stating that 1939 was the year Great Britain went to war with Germany.

Schell is sometimes credited as the only member of the television cast to recreate his role on film, but there were three others: German-born Werner Klemperer, Dane Torben Meyer, and Austrian Otto Waldis, all of whom portrayed Germans in the film.

Werner Klemperer (1920-2000), who portrayed Emil Hahn, the most unrepentant of the German judges on trial, was in reality the son of a Jewish man who fled with his family from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Klemperer had a long career in American films and television between 1952 and 1993, but he is probably best known as the comical prison camp commandant Colonel Klink on the TV comedy series Hogan's Heroes (1965-1971). He recreated that role voicing the character of Homer's imaginary Col. Klink on an episode of The Simpsons animated TV show, his final acting job.

The story was presented as a stage play by the National Actors Theatre on Broadway in 2001 with Schell in the part of Dr. Janning, who was played on screen by Burt Lancaster. (Writer Abby Mann thought Schell's portrayal of the accused judge was better than Lancaster's). George Grizzard was cast as the American judge played by Tracy in the film and German-born actress Marthe Keller played Madame Bertholt, which was Marlene Dietrich's screen role. New York Times critic Bruce Weber found the subject as compelling as ever, but said that the play felt truncated, especially because it did not include Judge Dan Haywood's attempts to understand the horrible circumstances as he moves about the city and talks to its people. Weber did, however, have high praise for Schell: "Mr. Schell is an imposing figure onstage, and as he makes Janning's inner crumbling outwardly visible, it gives the audience a visceral tug. When he and Mr. Hayden [as the defense attorney Schell played on TV and film years earlier] are nose to nose, the idea of his staring back at his own formidable youth yields a palpable tremor. These are representative moments in a play that gives oratory the muscle, sweat and high stakes of a last-man-standing prizefight. One only wishes it were more of a character-driven story and not merely a debate."

A dramatized account of the trial of high-level Nazis was presented in the television miniseries Nuremberg (2000), featuring Len Cariou as Francis Biddle, the real-life judge on whom Spencer Tracy's character was based. Marlene Dietrich can be heard on the soundtrack singing "I Never Slept a Wink Last Night."

Shortly after Judgment at Nuremberg, Marlene Dietrich narrated a documentary about the Third Reich, Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler (1962).

Judy Garland's "comeback" role in Judgment at Nuremberg proved so successful that Stanley Kramer quickly came up with another project for her, A Child Is Waiting (1963). It was produced by Kramer and directed by John Cassavetes and cast Garland opposite Burt Lancaster, who portrayed the judge that condemned her in Judgment at Nuremberg. The screenplay was also by Abby Mann.

After completing Judgment at Nuremberg, Tracy told a small gathering 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." He was true to his word; except for the narration of How the West Was Won (1962), he made only two more films before his death, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), both produced and directed by Kramer.

As his feature film career wound down, Kramer turned to producing, co-directing, and hosting several television dramatizations based on other controversial court cases, with titles that deliberately called to mind Judgment at Nuremberg: Judgment: The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1974), Judgment: The Court Martial of the Tiger of Malaya - General Yamashita (1974), and Judgment: The Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley (1975).

by Rob Nixon