Saw for the second time the masterful 1961 historical drama Judgment at Nuremberg, about the post-war trials of German judges who helped speed along the Final Solution --- in Daniel Goldhagen's words, "Hitler's Willing Executioners."
It's an amazing movie, of the kind that simply can't be made these days for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the assumed intellectual level of the audience. This is a film that seeks to say something about morals and law, but is not hobbled by a need to beat the viewer over the head with its message. Everyone is given a chance to argue his point over the guilt and complicity of the German defendants. The writer, Abby Mann, doesn't hesitate to muddy the moral waters with mentions of Nagasaki, American war profiteers, regular German folk who suspected or knew of atrocities but didn't dare get involved, and probably most importantly the political exigencies of the time: America needed to get along with Germany in the face of aggressive Communism.
The star-studded cast is amazing. A very young Captain Kirk is the judge's aide, and Colonel Klink is one of the defendants. The presiding judge, Spencer Tracy, at this point in his life looked like he had one hell of a bad day at Black Rock, and his craggy, stern visage seems to be constantly glowering. Judy Garland is unrecognizable, if you only know her from The Wizard of Oz, as a bowed but unbroken German woman imprisoned for loving a kind old Jewish man; Montgomery Clift is absolutely phenomenal as a mentally deficient German who was sterilized. Burt Lancaster says little as one of the defendants, but gives the definitive rousing speech near the end (which might resonate more closely in light of the modern War on Terror):
Only when you understand [the fear we lived in] can you understand what Hitler meant to us. Because he said to us: "Lift your heads! Be proud to be German! There are devils among us. Communists, Liberals, Jews, Gypsies! Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed." It was the old, old story of the sacrificial lamb. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Hitler himself will be discarded sooner or later.... And then one day we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger.... What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life.It's an intensely cerebral film, verbose but not wordy, casting a wide net with an array of characters but never leaving sight of its main arguments. The movies today that might compare to it in terms of scope and purpose are Traffic, Syriana, Babel, or Crash. I don't want to come off like clueless old curmudgeon, and I did enjoy all those films, especially the first mentioned. But Judgment at Nuremberg, and other cerebral films of a generation ago, come off as less frantic, less biased, less mawkish, and in general written and performed by people who had actually lived through a bit of life.
Now you kids get off my lawn!
Also: in a total repudiation of any taste standards I just set, I am to my surprise enjoying very much the fiendishly clever animated series The Venture Bros. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that having watched at least a little Johnny Quest or having read some comic books is a prerequisite to true appreciation of the show. However, if you understand the creators' cultural springboard and can fill in the deliberate narrative gaps, it's hilarious. It's also ironically retro, twisted, deadpan, convention-assuming and then convention-destroying, but mostly hilarious.