January 16, 2019

Stanley Kramer’s brave filmmaking to be spotlighted at ‘Nuremberg’ screening

“Judgment at Nuremberg,” one of Hollywood’s seminal films, will mark the 55th anniversary of its 1961 release with a screening on July 12 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

The revival will honor Stanley Kramer, one of history’s most courageous and principled filmmakers, who tackled such then-taboo issues as racism (“The Defiant Ones,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), anti-Semitism (“Ship of Fools,” “The Caine Mutiny”), nuclear war (“On the Beach”) and evolution (“Inherit the Wind”).

“Judgment,” written by Abby Mann, was based on an actual post-World War II trial of four German judges, who, during the Nazi era, bullied and sentenced to death German Jews for trumped-up charges of “race defilement” of “Aryan” women.

It is difficult to believe now, but the film was the first ever to show footage taken by American soldiers while liberating concentration camps, documenting mountains of corpses, skeletons and skulls of murdered Jews.

The reaction was stunning. The world premiere of the film was held, fittingly, in Berlin, attended by hundreds of German dignitaries, and Kramer later described the event as “the most frightening evening of my life.”

At the film’s opening, then-Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt warned viewers they might not find the film pleasant but that it had to be premiered in Berlin.

Kramer recalled later, “Well, the film went on, and when it was over, there was a deafening silence … the film was totally rejected. It never did 3 cents’ business in Germany.”

The reception was quite different elsewhere. With such stars as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and William Shatner, the film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won two — Schell for best actor and Abby Mann for best adapted screenplay.

If I may inject a personal reminiscence, “Judgment” was also made as a “Playhouse 90” television production in 1959, two years before the movie’s release. By some fluke, I was asked to play the brief role of a courtroom interpreter in the TV version, and before the shooting began, the cast was assembled and saw, for the first time, the horrifying concentration camp footage. Afterward, there was a stunned silence. Then Schell, who played the defense attorney in both the television version and the movie, stood up and said, “I want you to know that I am Swiss. I am not German.”

Kramer was born in New York City’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1913 and died in 2001, at 87. His films earned a total of 85 Oscar nominations, winning 16. Kramer himself was nominated for six Academy Awards as producer and three as director but struck out every time. However, during the 1962 Oscar ceremony, he accepted the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award for distinguished contribution to filmmaking.

The July 12 anniversary screening will be preceded by a Q&A with Karen Sharpe Kramer, who was married to the filmmaker for 37 years.

A former actress, his widow shared her encyclopedic knowledge of her husband’s work during a phone conversation with the Journal.

Stanley Kramer had a difficult start in life, his father having abandoned the family before Stanley was born. With his mother having to work full time, the boy was in effect raised by his grandmother, a Jewish immigrant from Poland.

While Stanley Kramer was obviously Jewish, “He did not believe in any formal religion,” his widow said. “Yet, he was the most religious man I ever knew because he lived with such absolute integrity.”

For information about tickets for the July 12 anniversary screening of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” please visit laemmle.com.