Finding it at the movies

Judgement at Nuremberg remains one of the most moving and dramatic and thought-provoking movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s for a movie-watching career which spans seventy years: first was the original Fantasia, which my father took me to see when I was six; most recent was Hugo, which we saw last Friday.

But back to J@N. It’s been the final scene which stuck with me over the years, a conversation between Spencer Tracy, as judge in a war-crimes trial, and Burt Lancaster, as a German judge whom Tracy has sentenced to life in prison. Lancaster, trying to justify his actions, says,

“Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that.”

Tracy — a small-time judge assigned to end-of-the-line trials, answers,

“Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

To refresh my mind on the exact quote — I usually remembered a couple of words reversed, “you sentenced to death a man” rather than “you sentenced a man to death” — I watched the final couple scenes again this morning. And I got the quote right this time.

But I also watched the scene before that one in the prison cell. It is Tracy with Maximillian Schell, as the German lawyer who defended the judge. He has come to ask Tracy to make that one last visit to his client, setting up the final scene. It is an exchange in this scene which now sticks in my mind.

Schell mentions that, at the recently-completed trial of German arms manufacturers, many defendants were let off with no sentence, and the others all received short prison terms. This in contrast to Tracy’s court, where all four defendants have been sentenced to life in prison. Schell offers Tracy a bet:

“A gentlemen’s wager. In five years, the men you sentenced to life imprisonment will be free.”

Tracy, caught between admiration for Schell’s skill and dismay at his attitude, says,

“You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic. So what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right. And nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right.”

And that, now, becomes the critical quote in the movie, the one which plays, in my mind, into an overarching problem of our time. The greatest criminals, those who loot and pillage, kill and destroy, are seldom brought to account; if ever they are, their actual punishment is a measure of their stature, not of their crime. To show exactly what I mean, here is the closing screen shot of the movie — made, you will recall, in 1961, only a dozen years after the final Nuremberg trials. (It’s also a link to the final ten minutes of the movie.)


Closing scene

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