Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I don't like the sound of these 'ere 'boncentration bamps.'

The fiance and I watched Judgment at Nuremberg miniseries-style, over three separate nights. That isn't a completely inappropriate way to take in this movie, since it does have that required-viewing historical drama flavor to it, but I recommend setting aside the time to watch the whole thing at once, if you can. According to IMDb, the tagline promised, "More than a motion picture... It is an overwhelming experience in human emotion you will never forget!" But it also happens to be a very good motion picture.

It must have been a daunting challenge to make a courtroom drama about war crimes that is exciting without being gimmicky, but screenwriter Abby Mann and director Stanley Kramer succeeded admirably with Nuremberg. The reason I recommend watching all three hours in a sitting is that you'll get a sense of how well structured the screenplay is. Take, for example, the moment when Col. Lawson introduces the footage from the liberation of the camps, as part of the prosecution's case. It comes at exactly the right point in the film; had the film invoked the specific horrors of the Nazi genocide any earlier, it would have risked inducing a kind of Holocaust-fatigue. Instead, the script gets you thinking about the characters in this particular story, and the conflicted emotions of Germany's people, and the legal and political questions of responsibility and diplomacy... and then the prosecution introduces the filmstrip, as if to say, you must always remember that the fictionalized motion picture you're watching exists only because of what you see in this real-life film. The footage from the camps, so horrifying and so unflinching, is a dose of perspective exactly when the story needs it.

The screenplay, at least during the courtroom scenes, is necessarily structured as one long speech after another, which is what allows for the virtuoso performances from Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland (who looks horrible, by the way), Burt Lancaster and, of course, Maximilian Schell. But it could also have been dull and static, so Kramer compensates by keeping the camera moving. Ernest Laszlo's Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography is terrific, and the camera nearly always finds the angle and the shot that will give you the most information possible. When a witness is testifying, we don't just see the witness box; we're likely to see the defendants in the foreground, listening, or to watch from behind the attorney's podium. This must have made for a long shoot -- I felt particularly bad for the actors who played courtroom guards, standing stock-still in the background of every shot -- but it pays off; it allows for the inclusion of subtle details, like Janning's growing participation in the trial (watch him transition from refusal to acknowledge the proceedings, to impassive listening, to active involvement in the testimony), or the occasional glimpse of the translators to remind you that some of these people are supposedly speaking German. And because the camera isn't constantly cutting back and forth from attorney to judge to witness, as it might during an episode of Law & Order, to accomodate the actors' shooting schedules, you feel like you're eavesdropping on an actual trial. At least, that's how you feel until Kramer decides to use his zoom lens, which he does with lamentable frequency. Is Spencer Tracy about to say something important? Quick, zoom in on his face! And I do mean "quick" -- the camera swoops in for a closeup so fast, and so jerkily, that it makes me giggle every time, which I assume is not the effect Kramer was going for. It looks like the guy with the boom mike bumped the "zoom" button with his elbow. Oh, and speaking of things that make me giggle inappropriately: William Shatner, ladies and gentlemen! He's actually pretty good and not at all scenery-chewing or mannered in his small role in this film, but if you can see him, so young and handsome and serious, and not smile a little, you must not have seen a Priceline Negotiator ad lately.

For me, the movie's weakest scenes are the ones that take place outside the courtroom. Marlene Dietrich, her legendary beauty now bordering on the grotesque (is she sucking in her cheeks, or is she actually starving herself?), is a compelling stand-in for the resentful and conflicted German people, but I confess to being slightly impatient with her chaste and drawn-out courtship of Judge Haywood. I understand the function of the scenes, but after a while I get distracted by Dietrich's painted-on eyebrows. And the brilliance with which the language-obstacle issue is handled inside the courtroom is tarnished a bit by the way it is ignored outside the courtroom -- Why doesn't Col. Lawson need an interpreter when he goes to talk to the Wallners? Why no interpreter when Judge Haywood talks to the German prosecutor, or to Ernst Janning, at the end of the film? If, as it seems, everyone in Germany (or at least, everyone related to the trial) speaks such excellent English, why not just conduct the trial in English and spare the translators the trouble? Nitpicks, I guess, but they remind me that I'm just watching a Hollywood movie, and from there it's a short leap to "Gosh, this movie is long."

I realized, during the last hour of the movie, how little I actually know about what happened after the war, in Germany and everywhere else. (I might have been the only student at Yale who didn't take that Gaddis class on the Cold War.) Looks like I have some reading to do. And on a theatre-related note, Leonard Maltin's movie guide notes that Nuremberg was "later a Broadway play," and I assumed that adaptation occurred some time in the mid-to-late 1960s, in the aftermath of the film's success. But no, apparently it was produced very recently, in 2001. Why do I not remember this? Somehow I can't imagine this material would be as effective onstage. The footage of the camps and their victims, so metacinematic within the film, couldn't retain its impact in a Broadway theatre -- it would feel like a slide show, wouldn't it? And would the events of the trial seem so immediate, and so important, without the present-day context of the Cold War as a frame? But obviously I missed my chance to see the play, so if you saw it, please fill me in. How did it work? Was the casting of Maximilian Schell as Ernst Janning a distracting stunt, or did he steal the show in that role too?

ETA: I figured out why I don't remember the Broadway run of Nuremberg - it happened during my semester in London. That strikes me as funny, because the following Broadway season was full of things I'd seen and heard about on the West End!

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