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A CurtainUp Review
Judgment at Nuremberg
By Elyse Sommer
With Maximillian Schell as Ernst Janning, the former German Minister of Justice who, along with three other judges, is on trial before an American tribunal as "the embodiment of what passed for justice in the Third Reich", the production at the Longacre also makes theatrical history since Schell won an Oscar when he played the part of Janning's young defense attorney. An interesting juxtaposition of roles which works remarkably well. With his brooding good looks and his emotions laid bare, Schell brings new depth to the older character he now portrays. He's a tortured and accessible Janning and every bit as impressive as Burt Lancaster was in the film -- especially during his second act statement to the court. One can only hope that he'll change his mind about his announced retirement from the stage.
Nuremberg remains a gripping courtroom drama that's stuffed with ideas for hours of debate and discussion. The situation that drives the plot is one of a series of trials following that of the big guns of the Third Reich such as Hermann Goering and Joachim von Ribbentrop. These later trials indicted businessmen and professionals, the "ordinary Germans" -- in short, all of Germany and those who went along with the Nazis. The men being tried are as guilty as the more notorious Germans except, as summed up in one of the play's most memorable lines which likened their guilt to that of "the dagger of the assassin was concealed beneath the robe of the jurist."
The scenes in the somber hearing chamber are interspersed with out of court meetings between the key characters -- the American prosecutor and the newly arrived Judge Heywood, Heywood with his colleagues, with the housekeeper of the mansion where he's quartered and with the aristocratic woman who once lived in it; Janning with his lawyer, his fellow defendants, his daughter and, in a memorable final confrontation with Judge Heywood. These scenes are brief, as they should be, since the drama is at its most pulsating inside the courtroom.
Besides Mr. Schell, there are more than twenty actors to make the stage vibrate with human drama. These days such a generously sized cast is a rare treat offered only by organizations like the National Actors Theater. It's a thrill to see all those actors fill the stage during the final curtain call. Fortunately, most of them are deserving of resounding applause.
George Grizzard's Judge Heywood (the role originally played by Spencer Tracy) presides over the trial with the homey, unpretentious resoluteness -- a mix of two long gone American politicians, President Harry S. Truman and North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin. Michael Hayden, is passionately persuasive as Oscar Rolfe, the German defense attorney (originally, Mr. Schell). Robert Foxworth brings an intelligently understated intensity to the part of Rolfe's opposite, the American prosecutor Colonel Parker whose determination to punish the judges is spurred by his having been one of the first to see the concentration camps. Marthe Keller is appropriately charming and aristocratic as the wife of an executed German General though Marlene Dietrich fans will find her more weighed down by Dietrich's film ghost than any of the other actors. (I should add that comparisons to the film, while inevitable, are unfair since given current events, Mann's forty-year-old story has enough new implications to differentiate its impact from that of the original).
Nuremberg affords great acting opportunities to actors making cameo appearances as witnesses, notably: Joseph Wiseman, ever the pro, as Dr. Wickert a frail old judge who quit the bench rather than to condemn innocent people; Michael Mastro as a fidgety, low IQ baker's assistant who was sterilized by the Nazis; Heather Randall as a young woman who refused to testify against an old Jewish family friend.
The staging, as already mentioned is stylishly high tech -- at times almost too much so. The use of newsreels and photos of Nazi victims is effective. However, the huge mirrored walls on which all this is projected, Brian MacDevitt's lighting and David Van Tieghem sound are at times garishly over the top -- but then again, the real events of the Nazi era were so bizarre that there's no toning them down.
You may also want to check out our reviews of two other recent plays about the Nazi reign of terror: Race and I Will Bear Witness