In a phone conversation that morning, I told the legendary Norman Lear that I was going to attend a screening at the Motion Picture Academy on Tuesday evening commemorating the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kramer's film, Judgement at Nuremberg. Lear, the unreconstructed liberal muse, thought for a long moment and then wearily said, "... And they're still killing people in the name of God."
Norman, soon to be 90, is celebrating the 30th anniversary this week of his founding of the liberal think tank/action committee, People for the American Way. (We will be writing a Huffington piece shortly on Norman and his views about the current moral fiber of the American way.)
I came away after viewing the powerful film with the feeling that nothing materially has changed in the world since that trial in 1947. Today, 60 years after the Nuremberg trials, holocausts are still happening (Darfur, Bosnia), judges in the Hague are sitting in judgement at war tribunals on despots, dictators and killers, and the world is fast sinking into another moral abyss, which appears to be bottomless.
Since the Nuremberg film is basically about the responsibility of judges for their actions, Norman Lear mentioned to me his advocacy three decades ago in 1987 against the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, culminating in the devastating TV ad voiced by Gregory Peck, which successfully derailed Ronald Reagan's nomination.
"No one who knows anything about Judge Bork regrets that fight," he said. And he decried that the probable Republican nominee for the presidency had just appointed Judge Bork to his inner legal circle. "I can't overstate how big a calamity that is," Lear went on. All of this resonated with me as I watched the searing film, all three hours and ten minutes of it.
Maxmilian Schell, 81, flew in from his home in Austria on his first visit here in five years, to attend the screening, which featured a pre-show panel emceed by Larry King, with Rabbi Marvin Hier (Oscar-winning documentarian and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center) and Mrs. Karen Sharpe Kramer (widow of the film's producer/director), on board with Schell, who dominated the proceedings.
Schell admitted that, while he won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1961 for his portrayal of the fiery young lawyer for the four Nazi judges, he thought that Spencer Tracy, also up for the Best Actor Oscar, should probably have gotten it. (I wholeheartedly agree... Tracy's performance was one of the finest I've ever seen.)
Max Schell asked the audience to stay for a few minutes after the screening, and he ended the evening's proceedings with a heartfelt plea to not allow another such holocaust to happen. "Think about the President of Iran saying that he wanted to destroy the state of Israel and its people," Schell said, "and what is happening in Africa and around the world. It's a cycle repeating itself."
Journalist Tom Brokaw and actor Alex Baldwin (who appeared in the Nuremberg TV miniseries), and the film's young co-star William Shatner, all sent video messages about it. Only 14 years after the historical events, Kramer did one of the first narrative films to address the horrible history and its aftermath. The film ends with all four defendants being found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a declaimer at the end credits that none of them remained in jail very long.
I was moved to tears by Judy Garland's poignant, sad performance, wrenched by Montgomery Clift's tortured portrayal, impressed by Marlene Dietrich's passionate speech, and knocked out by Burt Lancaster's final speech admitting his complicity as a judge for all that happened.
Richard Widmark, strong as the U.S. Army prosecutor, screened for the tribunal (and audience), the devastating films of the concentration camp horrors depicting the extermination of six million Jews and others. Spencer Tracy's final speech rendering the verdicts was finalized with his line, "The moment you allow one man to be convicted when he is innocent, you are responsible for all that follows."
Schell payed tribute to the late writer, Abby Mann, who won an Oscar for his adapted screenplay, after having written the original TV presentation which preceded the feature film, which was distributed by United Artists and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards.
According to Ellen Harrington, the Academy's impressive programmer, Kramer decided to premiere the film in Berlin, Germany "in the face of people who had been complicit and lived through the war." It didn't play in Germany for two years after that premiere.
Kramer's widow told the L.A. Times that "The German people took it hard; they didn't like what they saw. It was a very right thing and a very brave thing for Stanley to do that."
As Harrington said, "This was a film that, for its time, was incredibly daring." It still has the power to move us, to make us think, and to remind us that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." That is the real tragedy.
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