Before watching the movie:
I don’t really get why trying Nazi war crimes can fill a whole three hour courtroom drama, but the reason I don’t is probably why it needs that much time.
This film is indirectly responsible for my initial awareness of Spencer Tracy. In order to talk William Shatner into allowing himself to age publicly, Tracy was used as an example, and turned out to have been one of Shatner’s personal icons, having worked with him on this very movie. As much as I like Star Trek, I find Tracy’s performances very likeable for an entirely different reason from why Shatner is fun.
After watching the movie:
Dan Haywood, a judge recently retired by popular vote, arrives in Nuremberg to preside over a tribunal of four German judges accused of crimes against humanity for their participation in the Nazi regime. The accused must be proved to be responsible for their actions even in the current their country was swept up in. As this trial occurs two years into the war crimes proceedings, popular sentiment is never more against the whole thing, and with the Russians making a move to take Berlin, local support is never more needed.
Through the trial, Tracy’s character, outside the courtroom, spends his time trying to get to know the German people (and one widow of the trials specifically), in an attempt to understand, and so allow us to make that attempt. We see a people so horrified that they feel it better to forget, but also perhaps more afraid of being seen to be complicit in the atrocities. The subplot felt at times like padding an already steadily paced story, but at other times like a necessary element in interrogating what happened and exploring the aftermath. It also gives Tracy more to do than listen to arguments and overrule objections. Usually though, I just want to get back to the case.
There’s a focus placed here, especially in the first half or so, on more mundane social and civil reorganization that happened. We are all now aware of the camps and genocide. What we often overlook is the changes to way of life on the road to the genocide. Fascism in Germany did not begin with gas chambers, it began with normalizing racism, with justifying unjust laws by scapegoating and dividing. The temporary safety measures becoming business as usual.
While nominally concerned with determining the guilt of the accused men for their actions, ultimately the film indicts inaction. Accepting the rising evils in exchange for stability. Allowing a despicable system to grow up around oneself in order to try to do good within it. Appeasing the monsters only benefits the monsters, and in the end, everyone else is left to pay the price of the expediency.