It took me a really long time to watch this film, even though it was an Oscar winning film on a topic I'm fascinated by, namely the Nuremberg trials. It's 3 1/2 hours long and basically the whole thing is filmed in the courtroom. I just didn't see how it would not bore me to tears. But Kaja was visiting and was interested to have seen it too. Neither of us wanted to see it; we wanted to have seen it as part of our filmatic education. So with a partner to bolster our courage in the face of boredom, a six-pack and a big bowl of popcorn, we decided to work our way through it over three nights and set the DVD rolling at 11pm one night. We were transfixed through whole film and ended up watching it straight through, not finishing until after 2am.
Why is this such a good movie? Gosh, it's really hard to put your finger on. The acting is great. Spencer Tracy is very believable as a well meaning and thoughtful small-town judge, who is really trying to understand the German people and is trying to not pre-judge them. The German lawyer is played by Maximilian Schell, an Austrian-born actor. He is magnetic in the film, and he won an Oscar fo r Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance. The screenplay is also thoughtful and doesn't make any cheap shots (unlike the abysmal Taking Sides, which was on a similar topic). The screenplay also garnered an Oscar.
Oh, yes, the plot. There is a trial of three Nazi judges who are being charged with going along with the Nazis and thereby allowing the Nazis to pervert justice so that instead of communists, jews, disabled, etc being just summarily locked away, their persecution was given the patina of a proper and fair legal hearing. Two of the main cases being discussed have to do with forced sterilization. Mainly we (the viewer) are sitting in on the court cases and listening to the arguments by each side. There are a few scenes in prison with the three men on trial, a few scenes of parties, but by and large it's in a courtroom. But it is riveting commentary on the moral culpability of professionals within a terrible system.
I didn't feel like the film tried to tell me what to think and how to judge the men on trial. In the end, I sympathized with many of the arguments of the German lawyer, and I felt the American judge took a moral high-ground that is a bit unrealistic*. I think that was one of the points of the film, to make one think about these issues and show that it is not so cut-and-dried. The path to moral corruption is walked one little step at a time and at each turn, you may even be making what you think is the most moral choice in that situation. So in fact, when you finally do become an active participant in the actions of a corrupt State, it can be almost by surprise and without you ever really making a conscious choice to be such a participant.
*Kaja's comment: This was mostly likely requisite for the era in which it was released. It was a time where the US stood as an ultimate moral compass and empowered to pass judgment by being the victors. If we think about the how the nature of our politics and public has changed from then to now, I think that we would see our protagonist judge in a 2008 film tested and succumb to the human sympathies that we extend to other individuals in the middle of personal dilemmas.