Slow, methodical, meticulous and exceptional in every regard, this is a script that forces the director to take his time and allow the viewer as much as the judge to take in all the facts and opinions of the case. Although it carries similarities with 12 Angry Men in the way of tone and directorial style, here we experience the procedure of the courtroom rather than jury room. The other crucial difference is that this film is based on a real trial, in fact one of the highest profile trials in history. The second world war is over, Hitler is dead, and Germany is now occupied territory. Four high ranking Nazi judges are being tried within the American legal system for war crimes relating to the mass murder of millions of civilians in the concentration camps, and it is up to Chief Judge Dan Haywood to preside over the case. Spencer Tracey plays the judge, and it’s a real tour-de-force performance, his ragged face and worn-out demeanour perfectly expressing the weight of the decision he is going to be faced with and the political pressure he’s coming under. By the end of the eight months of testimony, rousing speeches, accusations and graphic details of what occurred in those camps, he just seems shattered by it all. In all honesty I was too, it is difficult to absorb three full hours of this and not be affected by it. This isn’t fiction, it really happened, and forevermore people will wonder how on earth these people could have got away with such atrocities for so long before the world came to realise.
“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 Lampe, 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.”
There is a particular section of the trial that stopped me in my tracks, a devastating scene in which graphic footage of what was found at one of the camps is played to the courtroom. I have seen many documentaries on the subject, but it doesn’t make you any more immune. I’m not going to describe it, just say that it is very, very difficult to watch. I think the director, Stanley Kramer, was brave to include it in the trial and not just refer to it, and it is a key part of what makes the film so successful. From this point on, the actors, the characters they are playing, and the viewers are all brought to the same level and state of mind. I doubt the actors would have needed to fake any emotion for their parts, though the four playing the accused (including an excellent low key performance by Burt Lancaster) and the lead for the defence (Maximilian Schell) must have had a harder time of it. How do you defend the indefensible?
Masterpiece is a word used too often in the description of movies, I likely overuse it myself, but I can’t find any other word that could do this film justice.