Retired American district court judge Daniel Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is brought to Nuremberg to preside over the trials of the German judiciary at the end of World War Two.
The trials of the top members of the Nazi hierarchy are long since over. Now the lesser-known functionaries are to be tried.
On trial are three former German judges and Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), one of the framers of the constitution for the Weimar Republic, which preceded Adolf Hitler’s “1,000-year Reich”.
Haywood determines to bring justice to those responsible not only for the destruction of law and order but also for countless acts of murder and brutality.
Fanatical American prosecutor Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark) shows films of concentration camps and produces victims of sterilisation and racial laws.
The accused are defended by ruthless Attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), a slippery and uber-logical youngster given to quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes in support of his case. In an Oscar-winning performance, he argues that the whole German people are on trial and cannot be condemned for patriotically observing the laws of their own land.
In the course of the evidence by Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich) about the murder of her husband, by Irene Hoffman (Judy Garland), by sterilisation victim Rudolph Petersen (Montgomery Clift) and of others, the judge finds the defendants guilty with Solomon-like wisdom.
His verdict is unpopular – the American authorities are keen to placate the Germans, whose support they now need in the face of the emerging Cold War threat from the Soviets – but Janning, for one, recognises that it is just.
In an eloquent and powerful summation of the case, Judge Haywood talks for an uninterrupted 13 minutes and 43 seconds. The shot was filmed in a single take using two cameras (as each film reel only held enough film for about 10 minutes) to prevent Spencer Tracy from having to pause in the midst of delivering his emotional speech, which climaxes the entire story.
This dramatic account of the court proceedings – with a cast straight from Hollywood’s Who’s Who – was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, whose many films included High Noon, The Caine Mutiny, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Screenwriter Abby Mann took considerable dramatic license in adapting the actual historical events of Judgement at Nuremberg. There were 16 defendants at the 1947 “Judges Trial”, but Mann condensed the number to four and conflated their actions. He also moved the trial timeline to 1948 to juxtapose it with the Soviet coup in then-Czechoslovakia, which marked the beginning of the Cold War.
Maximilian Schell and Werner Klemperer reprised the roles they had played on television in Playhouse 90: Judgment at Nuremberg in 1959.
Chief Judge Dan Haywood
Dr Ernst Janning
Col. Tad Lawson
Capt. Harrison Byers
Judge Kenneth Norris
Maj. Abe Radnitz
Brig. Gen. Matt Merrin
Dr Heinrich Geuter
Judge Curtiss Ives
Dr Karl Wieck
Mrs Elsa Lindnow