Even if you find Stanley Kramer's film ponderous, overlong and frankly a little distasteful in its simplistic view of the events it portrays there is no denying that it's an acting tour-de-force and really rather gripping as a courtroom melodrama and in the end you can't help but be moved by it. (Never mind that it deals with the Nazi war trials and the Holocaust; films that sincerely attempt to show that good people can do terrible and evil things do tend to move one on a fairly basic level and this is no exception). On the other hand, Kramer and writer Abby Mann do tend to aim for what be considered cheap sentiment rather than for any real, visceral emotional connection with the material as if the events themselves are too over-whelming to be treated in anything but the most conventional terms. In other words, it is a film that suffers a tad from 'Hollywooditess'.
Still, at least it is a film of ideas and arguments. When Mann won the Oscar for his screenplay he accepted the award, not just for himself, but for 'intellectuals everywhere'. Today that may sound condescending but you can see where he was coming from. Here was a film that dealt with grave matters soberly, even sombrely and ultimately sincerely and like any good court-room drama it does try to present both sides of what many will contest is a one-sided argument. How do you defend the indefensible, (and the insertion of newsreel footage of the concentration camps actually doesn't feel exploitative and the cutaways to the actors works).
It is also superbly filmed. Kramer wasn't just a polemicist but a superb craftsman, something for which he was never given his due. He was also a great actor's director and here a number of well-known players do what may well be their best work. Tracy is, as ever, beautifully understated; no actor could do gravitas like him, as is Dietrich, indeed as is Lancaster as the principal defendent, silent for most of the film and splendid in his great speech at the end. As two of the witnesses Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland are simply magnificent. Both were nominated for the supporting Oscar and it is hard to believe they lost to George Chakiris and Rita Moreno in "West Side Story". On the other hand, it was very much to the Academy's credit that they gave the Oscar for best actor to Maxamillian Schell as the brilliant and arrogant young defence attorney Rolf. This just wasn't Schell's finest hour but one of the great performances by any actor in an English language movie.
You could, of course, argue that it might have been even more effective with a cast of unknowns, that unknowns might have made it feel more 'truthful' but I doubt it. Great actors bring their own truth to proceedings and Kramer populated his film with some of the best for that very purpose. Revered at the time both the film and Kramer have both fallen out of favour but it shouldn't be overlooked. We need films like "Judgment at Nuremberg" ' 'lest we forget'.' That phrase may be a cliche but then what cliches but ultimate truths.