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Judgment at Nuremberg: Special Edition

Watching Stanley Kramer's powerful, Oscar-winning drama about the 1948 trial of the German judges who supported the Nazi regime, it's easy to imagine just how much more painful and controversial the film was upon its release in 1961, when the scars of World War II were still so fresh. Of course, with its focus on the crimes committed in the name of patriotism — from forced sterilization to mass murder in concentration camps (excruciating real-life footage of the latter is shown during the film) — Judgment at Nuremberg is still very relevant. What Kramer delivered, in the end, with the help of Abby Mann's Oscar-winning script and a truly stellar cast that includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Maximillian Schell, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift (as well as a very young William Shatner), is a cautionary tale, a warning. A country's government is never infallible, and closing your eyes to any injustice committed in the name of that government is never acceptable. That said, Nuremberg doesn't condemn the German people as a whole; instead, it places a greater burden of guilt on the shoulders of those who were in a position to stand up to Hitler and didn't: four judges accused of making the Nazis' inhumane policies legal. Presiding American Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy) is particularly fascinated by one of the defendants, Ernst Janning (Lancaster), a well-respected man who literally wrote the book on German law. As the trial proceeds and the facts of what the judges' decisions allowed come to light, Janning becomes increasingly upset, finally baring his soul in a stirring speech about truth and justice. Most of Nuremberg's power is in its words; as zealous German defense attorney Hans Rolfe, Schell (who won a Best Actor Oscar for the role) gets his own turn to speak out, as do Tracy and Richard Widmark (as prosecuting attorney Col. Tad Lawson). Clift and Garland turn in stirring supporting performances as victims of the Nazis (Clift is particularly haunting as the broken Rudolph Petersen), and Dietrich is coolly sympathetic as the widow of a German general executed after the first round of war crimes trials. Mann's script would have been a triumph no matter what, but thanks to the ability of the cast and Kramer's strong direction, Judgment at Nuremberg has become one of American cinema's landmark dramas, as well as one of the most powerful courtroom dramas ever filmed. MGM's special edition DVD offers the black-and-white film in a letterboxed 1.66:1 transfer, with English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (the original mono track is also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles). The extras aren't that extensive for a special edition, but their quality makes up for their relative lack of quantity. Kramer's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, talks warmly and candidly about her husband in a 14-minute tribute featurette, and Mann takes center stage for a brief featurette that puts the film in context (he offers McCarthyism as proof that any country can get carried away by patriotism), as well as a 20-minute conversation with Schell, in which the pair revisit the film and discuss its significance. Other goodies include the original trailer and an extensive photo gallery. Closed-captioned, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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