Judgment at Nuremburg and A Man for All Seasons: The Cinema of Conscience

When I teach my students about editing, I make sure to point out that it has a dual power—to both contrast and compare. Classic scenes of violence cut with scenes of a holy rite (The Godfather, Part One) or violence intercut with entertainment (Cabaret) can create ripples of meaning or suggestion.

Sometimes seeing two films from the same general time period one after another can be a similarly fascinating experience. Films one may have seen before, and especially films one saw as standalone experiences, can take on a whole new set of resonances when viewed alongside another film with similar themes or concerns. The films of the title feature Oscar-winning male lead performances, and both deal with morality and conscience in ways almost completely foreign to today’s films.

The first film “re-viewed” was one that few remember, though it was nominated for 11 Oscars and won a slew of international awards for picture, director, and acting. It’s 1961’s Judgment at Nuremburg, directed by an “issues” director whose reputation is diminishing by the year—Stanley Kramer, once the torch-bearer for a kind of sincere, socially conscious cinema that is classically 20th-century liberal, and tends to come off as unsubtle and dated today.

The film is agonizingly slow—it’s a procedural, after all, always a challenge in terms of speed and energy. It covers the war crimes trials in an American court in Nuremburg of four German judges after the Second World War. Though listed fifth in the cast, Austrian Maximilian Schell won the Best Actor Oscar over his co-star Spencer Tracy for a vibrant and dynamic performance that hasn’t aged a day.

There are certain elements that one could spend many a word on: Overrated actor Burt Lancaster is miscast in a role that Laurence Olivier turned down, sadly. Richard Widmark chews as much scenery as usual. Montgomery Clift has become more of a curiosity in the film, as it demonstrates the devastating effects of his accident a few years before. But taken by itself, it’s a fine performance and one that won him his final Oscar nomination. Judy Garland brings her usual emotional intensity to a straight dramatic role, and like Clift, performs beautifully (earning her own Oscar nomination) if one can get past the fact that she is Judy Garland. Marlene Dietrich seems to step in from another world and another film generation with a look and style that tends to clash with the more modern cinematic look (oh, Marlene, your insistence on 30’s lighting!) and acting style. And yes, Star Trek and Priceline fans will enjoy a young William Shatner in an important role as well.

But what make this three-hour film still worthwhile aside from its cast is its exploration of what is moral and what isn’t. It’s a highly intellectual film, and the thought process and the development of the finely wrought final legal arguments might be challenging for current audiences generally unchallenged by mainstream American film. But the film’s payoff (spoiler alert) is well earned and powerful in its conclusion: that there are behaviors that are immoral and wrong no matter what the German judges thought themselves. “My country, right or wrong” is shot down completely. There is no respect for the current “this is my truth and you need to respect that” perspective. The judges each had “their own truth” about what they did, and the film refuses to let them get away with it.

One wonders how a modern version of the same trial might be played out today. Yes, the great Jean Renoir said, “Tout le monde a ses raisons” but that was in 1939, and that kind of insight, while powerful, wasn’t cutting it after the war. Reasons, sincerity, heartfelt convictions about national loyalty—these were dealt a death blow in the film.

It’s too bad the film is such a difficult one to trudge through these many years later. Kramer does his best with his moving camera to keep things from visually stagnating, but it’s a slow film at best. But what it does is what few films do: lay out a series of arguments, explore a wide variety of perspectives that were real and often deeply held by the film’s characters, shed light on how they could have come to these perspectives, and then still come down hard on what the film presents as a morality that transcends all those understandable feelings and viewpoints.

Most viewers would likely agree with the film’s final judgment (legally and morally), which is a sign of the film’s intelligence, tightly constructed script, and powerful final conclusions. But I wonder how difficult it would be for today’s viewers to receive a film that, finally, refuses to give place to doubt, immoral loyalty and unthinking submission and comes to such a ringing, definitive conclusion.

Just a few years after Judgment at Nuremburg came another film about conscience, A Man for All Seasons. Nominated for eight Oscars, it won six, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinneman) and Best Actor for a timeless performance by the great Paul Scofield. While Judgment was a sleek black-and-white film in something of the emerging New York style, A Man for All Seasons is a sumptuous color extravaganza in the classic “big fat film” style of the times.

It may be a film of its time, but is nowhere as dated an experience as Judgment. Scofield is a joy to watch and listen to, and Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII may well be the definitive Henry performance, even if it’s a supporting one.

What’s at stake here is another issue of right and wrong, but the film lands on the side of the place of conscience—here the conscience of Sir Thomas More, who fell on the “wrong” side of the whole King Henry/Anne Boleyn catastrophe and lost his head in the process. (For those unfamiliar with the story, More’s Catholic faith prevented him from siding with King Henry in the king’s attempts to rid himself of his first wife in hopes of marrying and producing a male heir with Anne. Henry felt he needed More’s support, which was never granted.) The film virtually overflows with hypocrites and those who seared their consciences by a little or by much, all in contrast to More.

More wasn’t eager to be a martyr, and did his lawyerly best to stay out of the fray, and is portrayed as brilliant enough to talk and reason his way out of trouble for the longest time. But eventually the new order that Henry’s lust, frustration and power grab created could no longer tolerate dissent, and More and his stand of conscience could no longer be allowed to exist.

Of course, what comprises “the other side” in these two films is vastly different. In the first, we have the Third Reich in its vicious, amoral ugliness. The “consciences” of the German judges were declared as understandable in some ways, but evil and wrong nonetheless. The latter film pitted More against a system of power-grabbers, self-servers and a powerful, charismatic leader driven nearly mad by power, uncontrolled sexual desire, and the longing for a son to succeed him.

We can’t track with the skewed consciences of the Germans in Judgment at Nuremburg because there are, the film posits, larger issues of morality that trump the validity of their positions, even though they can rightly plead that they did what they felt was right in their own eyes. One may not quite understand More’s specific points of faith in A Man for All Seasons, but the film presents him as a brilliant paragon of intellectual consistency and virtue. We admire both the logic and the ethics of a man who gives himself no wiggle room in either area, even if it leads him to death as he nevertheless strives in every way he can to survive.

As a former Catholic, I understand where More is coming from theologically, and while I can no longer find myself agreeing with his allegiance to Rome, he is nothing if not a rigorous thinker and a model of living by one’s conscience. The film makes us side with him not only because of the rampant self-serving intrigue swirling darkly about him, and because Henry is so obviously wrong in many ways, but because we admire “a righteous man who swears to his own hurt.”

(Comparing this film to the recent British miniseries Wolf Hall is an exercise for another day, but suffice it to say that it is a superb companion piece ideologically and historically for that more modern take on the whole situation. Wolf Hall focuses on Thomas Cromwell, and demonizes More in the process.)

There are modern films that make us think, of course, even in America. Christopher Nolan is nothing if not a deep thinker, for example. But it seems as if films that come down definitively on issues of conscience and morality, proclaiming a clear right and a clear wrong, are at the moment, artifacts of a previous generation. Few would argue with these films’ conclusions in these areas, of course. And there are films that include a strong perspective on what they perceive as right and wrong as a part of their story. But these two films are ultimately about the whole issue of what is right and what is wrong, and both deal with both the inviolability and, in contrast, the limitations of conscience. As challenging as it may be for young and/or modern viewers to sit through these films, they are both grist for the mill of deep, intellectual conversation and debate.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 48+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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