If you wonder what kind of shows extras hate most to be booked on, you guessed correctly, trial scenes. They are hot, long wordy takes, have to sit still on hard wooden benches and fight to keep your eyes open.
The set of Judgment At Nuremberg had every one of those hateful discomforts.
But I felt honored to be selected to partake in this monumental production.
I admit there were moments when my eyes glazed over and were ready to slip into a coma. I worked in every single courtroom scene for something like 60 days. They were shot on a stage at Universal Studios in the hottest middle of a Southern California summer. Note that sound stages did not have air conditioning. The units were too noisy and vibrated the structure of the stage. What relief we had consisted of trucks with huge air conditioners on their flatbed. They were driven to the edge of the big sliding stage door. Between shots the doors were opened enough to admit hoses that were around 2 feet in diameter and ice cold air was pumped into the stage…. all to no avail. The stages were simply too big and held heat perfectly as well as freezing cold in winter. So we crowded into the wash from the hoses, all 200 or so of us. In addition I wore an army major’s uniform with a heavy jacket….
Nevertheless, imagine sitting directly behind Richard Widmark, listening to Maximilian Shell, Richard Widmark, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster and Spencer Tracy in this huge performance…. oh and look closely and see Captain Kirk long before Star Trek in a supporting role announcing the entrance of the judges. Although I had worked in enough bookings to no longer be awed by the nearness of a star, this was such a parade of the best on the screen that I sat transfixed by the power of their oratory.
Another unusual aspect; normally extras are a chatty lot and are more interested in getting back to their poker and pitch games during rehearsals by the principals…. not this time. The story was so intense and it was still very close to the end of the holocaust that even we extras were caught up in the seriousness inherent in these portrayals.
Stanley Kramer, the director was at his best. Inventing new combinations of camera shots. Notice the 360 degree turn around the podium when Widmark makes his opening statements. Try to imagine how such a shot is produced in the midst of people on all sides of the podium. With great difficulty. We had to rehearse that shot for over 2 days to get everyone in perfect synchronization. The camera was on a dolly riding a circular track. As the camera slowly moved along the track, the 3 camera operators, the two audio boom operators , several lighting guys carrying lights, grips lugging lights, camera, and audio cables had to stay exactly behind the camera. The front camera guy had to change the focus as the camera lens shifted from Widmark to Tracy and that moment had to occur exactly at that point in Widmarks speech. And above the lighting guys performed their own synchronized ballet to keep the overhead monster lights aimed at the spot where the camera lens pointed. Notice how all the outer shadows (except for sunlight streaming in) are behind the actors regardless of the camera position.
Here are some clips:
First the 360 degree shot:
Richard Widmark’s opening statement. Notice Captain Kirk (William Shatner) announcing the tribunal opening when he was just a supporting player:
Judy Garland’s first appearance:
Maximilian Shell cross examination of Judy Garland: