Not Rated. Running time: 3 hours.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.
The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
you will be beaten down by it.
The words of the Psalmist could well apply to the ruined city of Nuremberg after WW 2. There, where Hitler had rallied his followers by the thousands during the early Thirties (we see such a rally as the film opens), the Allies come to render judgment upon the surviving leaders of the most monstrous regime in history. The victors apparently want to treat the Nazis to the same irony that Hitler had dealt to the French in 1940. Just as the dictator had forced them to sign the papers of surrender in the same railroad car in which German representatives had surrendered at the end of WW 1, so now judgment on the Nazi leaders would be rendered at the city of their great publicity triumphs a decade earlier. Much of the center city is in ruins, the city’s Palace of Justice itself needing extensive repairs. But when Judge Jackson sees a wall plaque of the Ten Commandments amidst the shambles of the large courtroom, he knows that this is the place where the trials should be held.
Director Yves Simoneau and writer David W. Rintels’ docudrama, based on Joseph E. Persico’s book Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial and transcripts from the trial itself, takes us behind the scenes of the first trial in history in which the leaders of a nation are accused of crimes against humanity. From the beginning, when Hermanm Goering surrenders to the Americans and is treated very leniently, through the debates about the format of the proceedings and long ordeal of the trial itself, to the execution of those found guilty, we feel like we are eyewitnesses to history. The Nuremberg War Crimes truly deserve to be called The Trial of the Century, for they established the foundation for an international system of justice by which leaders of a nation, both civilian and military, can be called to account for their actions.
Much of the behind the scenes activities is fascinating, such as the debate between Justice Robert Jackson and the Russian General Nikitchenko. On the plane from the U.S. to Nuremberg Justice Jackson, who has been called from the U.S. Supreme Court to take charge of setting up the trial, outlines his plan to make the it as fair as possible. He would prefer that the defendants come to terms with their guilt, rather than to appear to be martyrs to a defeated cause. The Russians and the French, however, would just as soon execute the prisoners as quickly as possible. General Nikitchenko balks at patterning the trial after the U.S. court system, arguing that the guilt of the Nazi leaders is so evident that no lengthy legal proceedings are necessary. And what if a clever defense lawyer should manage to get them acquitted? Judge Jackson argues that it is necessary that the trial be seen by everyone as fair, lest it appear that it is merely the victors taking vengeance upon the vanquished. When The General refuses to agree, Jackson tells him that the Russians are welcome to do what they want, that the trial of the Nazis held by the Western Allies will proceed as he has outlined. This brings the Russian around very quickly, because they themselves hold none of the major leaders, and Nikitchenko realizes that Moscow wants to be a part of the event that is certain to capture the world’s attention.
There are 22 defendants as the trial begins, this soon reduced by one when Robert Ley, head of the German Labor Front, hangs himself. A 24-hour watch is then placed upon all the prisoners after this. The Nazis are indeed a stellar group, starting with Goering, Hitler’s arrogant, charismatic second in command who refuses to accept the legitimacy of the court. Others of the 21 include Albert Speer, the architect who served as Minister of Armaments and War Production; Wilhelm Keitel, Field Marshall, chief of staff of the German Armed Forces; Alfred Jodl, operations chief of the armed forces; Julius Streicher, publisher of the vicious hate newspaper Der Sturmer; Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Foreign Minister; Rudolph Hess, Deputy Fuhrer who had fled to Scotland in 1943; and Franz von Papen, Chancellor before Hitler, and Vice-Chancellor under Hitler.
Goering dominates the group so much, especially on the opening day of the trial when he steals the spotlight from Judge Jackson, that he is separated from them and placed in his own cell. Brian Cox so forcefully plays Goering that at times he comes close to stealing the film from Alec Baldwin, who plays the more laid-back American jurist. Cox’s Goering is often so charming that he even seduces the young American assigned to guard him into believing that he is an admirable human being who happened to end up on the wrong side. But when Jackson heeds the advice of his colleagues to lay aside complicated documentary evidence that threatens to bore the presiding judges and call eyewitnesses to testify to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, Goering and his colleagues are very much put on the defensive.
The showing of the film pieced together from both Nazi and American film clips shot in the death camps is even more damning. Although the Nazis watch with undemonstrative stoicism, many others in the courtroom are reduced to tears by the shots of skeleton-like concentration camp inmates and the piles of bodies and possessions, even gold teeth and eyeglasses, extracted from the victims. A few people get up and leave the courtroom, the impact is so great (we have to remember that this was the first time such a film was shown publicly). When pressed by Jackson about the wholesale slaughter, Goering resorts to what is apparent to all a lame excuse–that he did not know the details of the treatment of the Jews, that he was in charge only of “the administrative details.”
The film is graced with an excellent cast. Judge Jackson is well portrayed by Alec Baldwin; we catch a glimpse even of his affair with his chief aide Elsie Douglas (Jill Hennessy). She was the only woman member of the prosecution team. We are shown only a brief scene at the beginning between Jackson and his wife, but we gather that the rift between them had grown too deep for reconciliation. Fortunately, for the sake of the larger story, the script does not go into detail concerning this. The assignment of Army psychologist Capt. Gustav Gilbert (Matt Craven) to the defendants, whom he is supposed to examine and convince them to accept their guilt, is a difficult one. He is Jewish, and yet he must be friendly and as objective as possible. Goering does not make this easy.
Possibly the most chilling scene, at least for this viewer, is not the horrible concentration camp film, but the testimony of the former Commandant of Auschwitz. He describes the search for a more efficient way of killing prisoners as if he were describing the manufacture of widgets. There is not a tinge of regret. Indeed, he seems proud that his camp was able to “process” several thousand Jews a day when the ovens were brought up to peak capacity! As always with such films, we may wonder about the nature and goodness of God in the presence of such evil, and yet the film offers testimony that evil was stopped and its perpetrators were brought to the bar of justice, which is more than has occurred in the Balkans and central Africa, at least thus far.
Nineteen of the twenty-one Nazis were found guilty and given either the death sentence or life imprisonment. Two were acquitted, which should show that the trials were not run by a lynch mob. The filmmakers obviously see their film as a call to our generation to do its duty, to bring to justice those who brutally kill so many people that the term genocide is warranted, or, to use Isaiah’s words, have “made a covenant with death.” Thus we should be grateful that TNT is willing to bring such a substantial film to the public. Unlike the earlier, darker Stanley Kramer film Judgment at Nuremberg, director Yves Simonteau ends on a positive note, assured that now there are international standards of decency and justice that can, and must, be used to judge those who violate them.
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