Marlon Brando wanted to play the role of Hans Rolfe, the German lawyer who defends the German judges. Brando, in a rare attempt to garner the part, actually approached Director Stanley Kramer about it. Although Kramer and Screenwriter Abby Mann were very intrigued with the idea of having an actor of Brando's talent and stature in the role, both were so impressed with Maximilian Schell's portrayal of the same part in the original television broadcast Playhouse 90: Judgment at Nuremberg (1959), that they had decided to stick with the relatively unknown Schell, who later won the Oscar for Best Actor for that role.
Always in denial about her age and extremely careful to preserve her flawless image, Marlene Dietrich had cosmetic surgery (it was not the first time) before shooting began which, accentuated by the lighting, gave her sharp facial angles and a tight mouth that limited her expressions. She was very much displeased when she saw the completed film.
The song whose meaning Mrs. Berthold explains to Judge Haywood when they walk past a pub while people in there sing it, is called "Lili Marlene". The song was popular with German and British forces during the war, and was actually recorded by Marlene Dietrich herself in the 1940s and 1950s.
Watching Maximilian Schell shoot a scene one day, Spencer Tracy said to Richard Widmark, "We've got to watch out for that young man. He's very good. He's going to walk away with the Oscar® for this picture." This is exactly what happened.
Montgomery Clift had a habit of cutting his hair very short when he was between films and would not work until it had grown back. In fact, his scene in this film was shot right after getting one of those haircuts. He also had so much trouble remembering his lines, the scene had to be re-shot many times. Director Stanley Kramer finally gave up and told Clift to ad lib his lines, saying that this would help to convey the confusion in his character's mind while he was being questioned on the witness stand. "Monty seemed to calm down after this," Kramer later recalled. "He wasn't always close to the script, but whatever he said fitted in perfectly, and he came through with as good a performance as I had hoped."
In 1961, when this movie was released, up to 29 states in the U.S. had eugenics boards which actively performed forced sterilizations. Also, miscegenation laws were active and legal in many states in the U.S. until 1967. This movie skims over this fact. So, when the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi judges were going on in Germany (1947), these same laws were still in effect in the U.S., and did not disappear until 1961 (miscegenation) and 1979 (eugenics).
Immediately upon hearing his sentence, Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer) declares, "Today you sentence me, tomorrow the Bolsheviks will sentence you!". Whether intended or not, those words strongly parallel the last words of the notorious Julius Streicher, as he was about to be hanged following his conviction at the first Nuremberg Trial. As the black hood was placed over his head, Streicher screamed, "The Bolsheviks will hang you one day!"
Marlene Dietrich had a great deal of trouble performing in the scene between Mrs. Bertholt and Judge Haywood when she claims German civilians did not know of the atrocities the Nazi government committed during the war. Dietrich, who during the war had worked for the Allies against the Nazis, found the sentiment so repulsive that she could not keep her concentration. Only after counseling by Spencer Tracy was she able to complete the scene. According to an interview with her grandson Peter Riva on the "Icons Radio Hour", Dietrich would get physically ill (to the point of vomiting) in the evenings over this part. In a conversation with her daughter Maria Riva, Maria told her to "simply play her mother". The fictional Mrs. Bertholt is a representation of the mother of Marlene Dietrich.
Burt Lancaster does not utter a single word in the courtroom until his outburst roughly two hours and fifteen minutes into the film. However, prior to that he does speak briefly in three scenes set in the prison.
On Judy Garland's first day on the set, cast and crew greeted her with warm and lasting applause. It was a welcome return to films for her, and her mood was further elevated by the lower pressure of acting in a cameo, rather than carrying a picture as she had done in almost every film she made since childhood. Still her joyful attitude made it difficult for her to perform her dark emotional scenes. "Damn it, Stanley, I can't do it. I've dried up. I'm too happy to cry," she said. He gave her a ten-minute break before continuing to great effect. "There's nobody in the entertainment world today, actor or singer, who can run the complete range of emotions, from utter pathos to power...the way she can," Kramer said.
It is mentioned that Mrs. Bertholt's husband, a German Army General, was executed for his role in "the Malmedy incident". In 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, German SS forces captured a unit of American soldiers near Malmedy, Belgium. Instead of sending them to a POW camp, the prisoners were trucked to an open field, where they were unloaded, herded into the middle of the field and then machine-gunned, killing 84 of them. After the war, several German officers involved in the incident were convicted of war crimes and imprisoned, although none were executed.
Werner Klemperer, who played defendant Emile "nasty Nazi to the very end" Hahn, is probably known best as Colonel Klink in the television series Hogan's Heroes (1965). Klemperer, a German Jew, and his family fled Germany at the outset of the Nazi regime. He wound up in Hollywood, and agreed only to play the role of a Nazi in a movie or television series if the character was despicable, as in this movie, or a bumbling loser, as in "Hogan's Heroes".
When Montgomery Clift showed up on set, his appearance was rather disturbing-- - hair badly cropped, nervous, uncomfortable, and apparently at the end of an alcoholic bender--, but Stanley Kramer thought that his condition made him look and speak exactly right for the role.
According to Stanley Kramer, a young New York stage actor in a small part held up production at one point. He was trying to understand his motivation in a brief shot which called for him to enter a room, cross to a table, and wait for Spencer Tracy to enter to hand him a folder. At 10:15 a.m., after sitting in his dressing room since 9:00 am, waiting to make his entrance, Tracy stormed onto the set and said, "Lookit, you come in the f***ing door and cross the f***ing room and go to the f***ing table because its the only way to get in the f***ing room. That's your motivation."
Montgomery Clift was so eager to be in the film that he offered to do it for expenses only and no salary. His deal didn't turn out to be such a reasonable break for the production budget since his expenses included an open tab for him and his friends at the Bel-Air Hotel, chauffeured transportation, and all the liquor he wanted.
Spencer Tracy dropped his "no work after 5:00" rule for Maximilian Schell, staying on the set during shooting of Schell's big summation speech so that he could deliver his lines to Tracy as the presiding judge.
Judy Garland had gained considerable weight since her last picture (A Star Is Born (1954)) and wanted to trim down for the role, but since she was playing a poor German hausfrau, Stanley Kramer convinced her not to alter her appearance.
In order to break up the monotony that often plagues courtroom scenes, Stanley Kramer decided to keep the camera moving, which was not always successful in his estimation. At one point, he decided to move it 360 degrees around Richard Widmark during a long speech. It took a lot of rehearsal to choreograph a maneuver that required everyone in the crew to carry cables and equipment around in a circle. "It feels a little indulgent to me now," Kramer said years later. "I'll just have to plead guilty to bad judgment here."
Judy Garland was alerted to the part by her business partners Freddie Fields and David Begelman, who learned about it through one of their clients, Marlene Dietrich. When they approached Stanley Kramer, he was interested but remained noncommittal, so they continued with plans for an extensive concert tour for the singer-actress. Like everyone in the business, Kramer was aware of her reputation for being difficult and unreliable and her long addiction to drugs. She had not made a movie since A Star Is Born (1954), but when he went to see her concert in Dallas, he was struck not only by the "tremendous emotional range" of her performance but by the fierce adulation she inspired in her audiences. Reasoning that it was only an 18-minute part that would take no more than eight days on the set, he offered her the role for an agreed-upon $50,000. Despite her reputation for being difficult, Garland proved to be punctual, cooperative, and professional throughout the shoot.
Spencer Tracy had a bit of fun with Abby Mann. One day when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas showed up on the set, Mann brought him over to meet Tracy. To his embarrassment, Tracy told Mann in front of Douglas, "Take your Communist friends and go to hell." It was only later at lunch that Mann realized Tracy and Douglas had known each other well for years.
Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift became close friends during filming. Clift hung around an extra week after his scene was completed, so he was able to sit in the corner and watch Garland do her scenes. (It also greatly inflated his "expenses only" agreement). As she broke down on the stand, he wept openly. When she finished her take, he went over to Stanley Kramer, his eyes and cheeks still wet with tears, and said, "You know, she did that scene all wrong."
When Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas, a longtime friend of Spencer Tracy's, visited the set and asked Burt Lancaster jokingly, in reference to the all-star cast, how he was dealing with all the "ham" on display, Lancaster didn't respond and walked away with a shrug. A few days later when Thomas returned to the set and said hello to his old friend, Tracy replied gruffly, "What the hell are you doing here?" He also made nasty comments about the journalist when Thomas tried to speak to other cast members. Attempting to interview Tracy, Thomas was met only with an angry, "I suppose you've come around to talk to the hams." Tracy didn't speak to him for six years after that.
Montgomery Clift had difficulty with his lines, cues, and timing. He told Stanley Kramer he didn't know if he could actually get through the scene. Kramer did his best to reassure him, but it was Spencer Tracy who eventually helped Clift through it. Perhaps drawing on his own years of alcoholism, Tracy spoke to the younger actor with sympathy but with firmness, even relaxing his own dictum about sticking strictly to the script: "Just look into my eyes and do it. You're a great actor and you understand this guy. Stanley doesn't care if you throw aside the precise lines. Just do it into my eyes and you'll be magnificent." Clift spent four days getting through the seven-minute sequence, stumbling through and performing each take differently. At the end of his last take, the set broke out into spontaneous applause. "Monty's condition gave the performance an aura as though it were being shot through muslin, the way the words tumbled out and the disjointed, sudden bursts of lucidity out of a mumble," Kramer said later. "It was classic! It was one of the best moments in the film!" Some film historians and critics have since suggested that Kramer knew exactly what he was doing by casting such broken and erratic performers as Judy Garland and Clift in roles that called for expressions of pain, embarrassment, and terror.
Spencer Tracy enjoyed playing practical jokes on people and getting the goat of some of his fellow cast members. Entertainment writer Charles Hyams recalls Tracy telling him exactly how much Burt Lancaster was being paid for his role as a repentant German jurist and told Hyams to check with the actor to confirm it. When Hyams asked, Lancaster, who was never known for his sense of humor, was furious while Tracy sat back watching and laughing.
Spencer Tracy loved Abby Mann's script and was adamant about his fellow cast members performing it exactly as written, "and that goes for this guy and this guy and this guy," he'd say on the set as he pointed to all the big stars. He complained to Mann angrily that Marlene Dietrich was having Billy Wilder rewrite all her lines. So when she arrived on the set one day with her script marked with "little changes," Mann tore it up on the spot and told her to go out and read her lines in his words. Tracy then got angry with Mann for being too demanding with Dietrich in front of the crew.
Aside from his occasional off-camera pranks, Spencer Tracy took the work very seriously and expected others to do the same. When an actor playing one of the American judges continued to eat a pastrami sandwich between takes, Tracy blew up and said, "How the hell can we be passing judgment on four guys, imprisoning them for life for war crimes beyond comprehension, and knowing all that, how the hell can you munch on that sandwich?"
Since he was only scheduled for five days work (which stretched to ten due to Spencer Tracy's illness), Montgomery Clift decided to avoid the agony of drying out, which he usually did for his other acting jobs. Instead he drank quite openly every moment of the shoot when he was not in front of the camera, dumping out most of the contents of an orange juice carton and refilling it with vodka.
Judy Garland was required to do some retakes on the same day she was scheduled to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. The prospect of ruining her voice before the concert terrified her, and she became hysterical. Stanley Kramer rescheduled her scenes, but it still took her friends and handlers four hours to calm her down.
Only three Nazis from the original International Nuremberg trials were still in Spandau upon release of this movie. Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach were freed in 1966, and Rudolf Hess died there in 1987. The end title card which states that of 99 imprisoned defendants none remained in prison as of 1961, refers only to the later trials which took place in the American Zone, not the famous International Tribunal.
Despite being ill with a kidney ailment and other problems exacerbated by his longstanding alcoholism, Spencer Tracy agreed to go to Germany for exterior location shooting and even worked hard when he returned to the studio set in Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn was reportedly with him throughout the production, keeping an eye on him and caring for him. Tracy's biggest fear was that he would not be able to remember his lines. Stanley Kramer made special arrangements in the shooting schedule to keep Tracy from getting tired, such as agreeing to a contract stipulation that the actor would finish work promptly at 5:00 every day.
On the day Spencer Tracy gave his eleven minute summation speech, the set at Universal Pictures was packed to the rafters with celebrities and studio executives. Stanley Kramer shot it in a single take, not because he thought breaking it up would necessarily lessen the impact of the words but because he knew he would get the maximum emotional payoff out of Tracy without having to start and stop. To be sure he had the coverage he needed without scheduling a reshoot, Kramer had the speech filmed with two cameras simultaneously from two different angles.
A stage adaptation, also written by Abby Mann, was produced on Broadway many years later. It starred Maximilian Schell in a different role, this time as Ernst Janning, the role played by Burt Lancaster in the film. The play opened at the Longacre Theatre in New York on March 26, 2001 and ran for 56 performances.
Marlene Dietrich was reluctant to play her role until every detail was ironed out to her satisfaction. She insisted her frequent designer Jean Louis create all her clothes. Dietrich also had Stanley Kramer alter the painting of the man who was supposed to be her dead military officer husband because she didn't think he looked dignified enough. Each day she would march onto the set and immediately give orders about how she was to be lighted and where the camera should be placed.
Perhaps fearing he wouldn't be able to perform some of Mann's longer passages of dialogue, Montgomery Clift asked Stanley Kramer if he could change some of the dialogue where necessary. Kramer told him he could have a certain amount of flexibility.
Werner Klemperer, who plays Emil Hahn, was born in Cologne, Germany. His father was renowned conductor Otto Klemperer of the Kroll Opera in Berlin, and his mother was soprano Johanna Geisler. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1935, and Werner served in the U.S. Army in World War II, serving in the Pacific theater.
Stanley Kramer wanted to film in the original courtroom where the real trials took place, but it was still in use and unavailable to him. He had a mock-up built in the studio, scaled down for greater efficiency in photographing the action.
Howard Caine who played Judy Garland's husband who tries to stop her from testifying, was another Hogan's Heroes cast member. He was the snapping, snarling SS Major Hochstetter who was always coming down on Colonel Klink.
The space between the attorney's box and the witness stand was forty feet in the real courtroom, which set designers compressed to 28 feet. Nevertheless, actors in the far distance had to have a lot of light cast on them to stay in focus, causing them to greatly perspire.
Virginia Christine (Mrs. Hablestadt) and Spencer Tracy also were cast together in the highly controversial Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Virginia playing Hillary St. George, managing an art gallery for Spencer's on-screen wife, Katharine Hepburn.