Stanley Kramer's political critique of the Nuremberg Trials

Stanley Kramer

Author and scholar Elisabeth Bronfen discusses a chapter from her book Specters of War: Hollywood's Engagement with Military Conflict, explaining how Stanley Kramer uses film to critique the Nuremberg trials.

By Arturo Diaz

International Institute, UCLA, March 7 - Author and scholar Elisabeth Bronfen examined Stanley Kramer's 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg at a noontime lecture hosted by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies (CEES). Discussing the fallibility of justice in the face of post-war political pressure, Bronfen argued that, “In his reenactment of the trials against Nazi judges, Kramer places at center stage the ways crimes committed in the name of war haunt subsequent times of peace.”

Bronfen argued that the film director deliberately revisited Nazi ideology to levy an ethical indictment against it and make a moral appeal to the spectators, resting the burden of the final judgment squarely in the hands of the audience.  She described Kramer’s use of the American courtroom genre, which employed the adversarial process of examination and cross-examination to highlight how the political forces of the era in the United States prevented justice from being effectively dispensed after the Nuremberg trials. “Because the juridical process is itself influenced by diverse interest groups surrounding the case,” she explained, “it can never rid itself of the suspicion of fallibility; in fact, often even [the suspicion of] corruptibility.”

The speaker noted that during the late 1940s, the U.S. military exerted powerful pressure on the judicial process for a favorable outcome of the Nuremberg trials. This pressure fostered a climate of forgetting and denial that reflected the change from occupation to reconstruction of Europe as part of U.S. Cold War policy. By 1961, not one of the 99 defendants who were condemned in 1949 was still serving a sentence. 

Fueled by moral outrage, Kramer “reenacts a reenactment of a reenactment,” Bronfen observed, separating the judicial and political discourses in order to make the audience the jury. “This is precisely why we need Hollywood’s fictionalized reenactments of something like the trials against the Nazi judges,” she remarked. “The collective forgetting that [was] fostered by the Truman administration’s policy towards Germany is undermined by these effectively charged moral testimonies.”

The specter of denial was further discussed in a question-and-answer period led by Daniel Treisman, Professor of Political Science at UCLA and Interim Director of CEES. Asked how the film was received in Germany when it first came out, Bronfen speculated that the country would have been much divided in 1961.

In the 1960s, she explained, the German public was emerging from a decade of trying to forget the past. Yet when the anti-Nazi German actress Marlene Dietrich did a tour of Germany early in the decade, she was not well received. “They hated her” added Bronfen. “They threw eggs at her because they weren’t willing to forgive her for having not just switched sides, but for having put on an American uniform.” 

Bronfen acknowledged that the film has become culturally important in contemporary Germany. “In Germany in all fairness,” she related, “I think one must really say the engagement with the Nazi past is something that has taken place to such a deep and multi-level way, in high schools, etc., that this [film] would be something that they would have all seen.”

In response to a comment that the film includes scenes that appear exaggerated and grotesque to contemporary sensibilities, she suggested that it had a clear pedagogical interest. Given its political ethics, the film was not meant to be overly realistic.  However, Bronfen noted that the film did invoke realism by critiquing U.S. advocacy of justice in the film.  Referring to a scene in which an African American guard listens to the testimony of crimes committed against humanity, she asked “In the name of exactly who are we making claims to justice?”

Elisabeth Bronfen is Full Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Zurich. She has published widely in the areas of Anglo-American literature, visual culture, gender studies and cinema and psychoanalysis. Her most recent books include a cultural history of the night and a discussion of Hollywood and war. The event was sponsored by CEES, the UCLA School of Law and its Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and the Consulate General of Switzerland in Los Angeles.

The complete podcast of this lecture is available here.

Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013