Nuremberg (review)

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The Trial of the Half Century

All the Bible-thumpers who think the cures for America’s woes lie in posting the Ten Commandments everywhere would do well to remember this: Those same decrees were on display in the Nuremberg courtroom in which Nazi law was handed down, laws responsible for the persecution of entire races of people and, ultimately, for the deaths of tens of millions. If those commandments had any effect on those they looked down on, it certainly cannot have been for the better.

U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin: Outside Providence, The Edge) likes this irony, and it’s in this German courtroom that he sets out to prosecute high-ranking Nazi officers for crimes against humanity in the TNT Original Nuremberg. Powerful and riveting, alternatively disturbing and triumphant, this is an important history lesson told with compelling drama.
The war with Germany has barely ended — and the war with Japan still rages on — when Jackson, the “best prosecutor in the country,” is appointed chief prosecutor for a war-crimes tribunal being launched against the Nazis by the Allies: the United States, England, France, and Russia. Jackson is given leeway to set the rules of the trial and even to pick the defendants from among the captured Nazi officers, and he is eager to demonstrate that this will not be a show trial — he wants this to be a “trial of superior morality,” in which the American (and English) manners of handling law, crime, and criminals are held up as an example of civilized rightness, even at the risk of Not Guilty verdicts. The Nazis are suspicious, needless to say: “Why don’t you just shoot us now?” one wonders.

Based on Joseph Persico’s book Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, Nuremberg impressively dramatizes the chance Jackson took, and the extent of its payoff. The distastefulness of watching men like Hitler’s number-two man, Hermann Goering (Brian Cox: Longitude, Rushmore), stand in open court and plead Not Guilty becomes defensible as Jackson uses an American system of trial to deliver a devastating rebuke not only to the acts of the individuals on trial but to the very nature of the regime they perpetuated. Taking the burden of proof upon himself, as he must, Jackson wields a power that’s extraordinary for the limits it places on itself, and yet one that, paradoxically, is stronger than the all-controlling fascism it opposes. Freedom and fairness win in the end, even if Goering deludes himself that there will be statues of him all over Germany one day.

Not just a courtroom drama, Nuremberg also focuses on the motivations and psyches of the Nazis: How could they have committed such atrocities? How did they live with themselves? A U.S. army psychologist, Captain Gustav Gilbert (Matt Craven: Paulie), brought into analyze the prisoners, finds himself perversely fascinated by Goering — Cox portrays him with a cold practicality for as horrifying a picture of evil as you’ll ever want to see. Gilbert and Goering engage in something of a battle of personalities, as Gilbert’s attempts to get the Nazis to acknowledge their remorse — which begins to take hold in Albert Speer (Herbert Knaup: Run Lola Run) — bumps up against Goering’s demagogic hold over his fellow officers. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Gilbert is Colonel Burton C. Andrus (Michael Ironside: The Perfect Storm, The Omega Code), the Nazis’ jailer, who treats his charges as contemptible criminals, and nothing more. Ironside, who has rarely been given a chance to show us what he can do, shines here: watch for the scene in which, enraged, he rips the military insignia from the uniform of a Nazi who dares to claim kinship with him as a fellow soldier.

Still, the most potent moments in Nuremberg come in the courtroom. Alec Baldwin (who also produced) has rarely been better than he is here as the honest and honorable Jackson, calm but forceful during emotionally overwhelming opening and closing statements in the courtroom. Christopher Plummer (The Insider), as the chief British prosecutor Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, reads into evidence an eyewitness account of Jews massacred by the Nazis and piled in mass graves. In a small but chilling turn, Colm Feore (The Virginian) portrays the commandant of Auschwitz, brought in as a witness, who likens his former position to that of “a rat catcher catching rats.” And in a long, uncomfortable scene, film footage of the concentration camps taken by Allied liberators is shown as evidence — the only sounds are the whirl of the projector and muffled sobs, in reaction to the horrible images, echoing through the darkened courtroom.

Nuremberg doesn’t shy away from complicating issues, from Jackson’s affair with his assistant, Elsie Douglas (Jill Hennessy), to the American atrocities of the Japanese internment camps and Hiroshima. But they only serve to support Jackson’s contention, and Nuremberg‘s surmise: that the winning philosophy was the better one not because it never makes mistakes or does wrong but because it is constantly striving to ensure that those mistakes and wrongs are never repeated.

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