Review: American Century Theater’s ‘Judgment at Nuremberg’
ARLINGTON, Va., June 1, 2014 –Whether one has encountered it as a 1950s TV drama, a 1961 Academy Award-winning film, or in its more recent incarnation as a limited-run 2001 Broadway play, one would have to conclude that Abby Mann’s “Judgment at Nuremberg”—with its still-disturbing focus on the silent complicity behind the rise of Nazi Germany—is far more provocative than it is entertaining.
That said, “provocative” is what’s on the menu, and sometimes that’s a good and useful thing it’s a largely true-life story that apparently needs to be told again and again as succeeding generations seem to serially forget the massive human tragedy that began in Germany and ultimately destroyed most of Europe in the Second World War. This is one of those rare plays that can’t help ignite the kind of volatile post-theater discussions that today most people try to avoid, and that’s very likely a good thing.
And that’s surely what motivated the American Century Theater to stage this play as its 2013-2014 regular season finale in its Gunston Theatre home.
In the main, “Nuremberg” is a play that, by recollecting the twin tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust, explores the nature of mass evil forged on a national scale by a megalomaniacal tyrant and his compliant minions as well as the fearful and passive complicity of the average citizen that, arguably, continues to sustain such a moral outrage.
Within the context of this drama, it’s Hitler, his Nazis, and the average German citizen-denialists of that era who come across as the bad guys. But with its infrequent but telling swipes at Europe’s other nations, at Churchill, and at the U.S., the playwright is also warning that those who think “it can’t happen here” had better think again.
Background of the play
First offered as a “Playhouse 90” televised drama in 1957—back in the early black and white TV era when new and classic dramas and classical music presentations were actually a fairly regular feature on the tube—“Judgment at Nuremberg” achieved even greater success—if not massive profitability—as a 1961 Stanley Kramer film.
With an all-star cast that featured Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift in key roles, the movie earned Oscars for Abby Mann (Best Adapted Screenplay) and for young German actor Maximilian Schell (Best Actor) who was cast in the hapless role of defense attorney Hans Rolfe.
With some fiddling here and there, Mann eventually brought yet another adaptation of his material to Broadway where it had a short, artistically successful run, notably marked by a much-older Maximilian Schell’s return, this time in the complex role of German judge and official Ernst Janning.
It’s this latter version, again with tweaks, that American Century (aka, TACT) has brought to Arlington under the always able direction of Joe Banno. With its somber subject matter and relatively long running time (more than 2 ½ hours including intermission), “Judgment at Nuremberg” is one tough evening of theater.
But Banno and his excellent cast keep things moving at a brisk pace, provide some surprising value-added, and generally succeed in adding a key third and very human dimension to Mann’s sometimes two-dimensional characters. All this makes for a largely successful production, although you generally have to pay close attention to every detail to avoid getting lost in the legal and moral twists and turns that drive the outcome.
“Judgment at Nuremberg” in all its forms is a lightly-fictionalized slice of life excised from the actual post-war war crimes trials conducted by the U.S. and its allies after the close of WW II. Actually a series of trials, the first and most famous of these (circa 1945-46) convicted and executed key leaders of the Nazi regime. Mann’s play takes on the more legally complex third or “Judges’ Trial.” Held in 1947, this trial included as defendants 16 judges and attorneys accused of complicity with Hitler’s regime.
Mann’s treatment reduces the list of defendants to four key German judges, fictionalizing their names as well as the names of their victims and those of the presiding American judges. In the actual trial, the chief American judge actually had to be excused due to illness and was later replaced. But for dramatic concision, Mann keeps his fictional three-judge panel intact. Otherwise, the play tracks quite closely with reality.
As with a great deal of American drama and fiction that originated in the 1950s, Mann’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” had an additional domestic political dimension. It was at least in part negatively inspired by the McCarthy Hearings of that era, which quickly became notorious in artistic circles for the resulting blacklisting of writers, actors and directors deemed—correctly or incorrectly—as Communists or Communist sympathizers.
Already horrified by the Nazis’ mass sterilizations and mass murders of Jews, gypsies, Poles, the physically disabled, the mentally ill and others the regime viewed as physically or ethnically undesirable, it’s clear that Mann saw the seeds of the same problem being sown on this side of the Atlantic in the McCarthy hearings. One wonders whether the playwright, who passed away in 2008, would recognize similar repressive tendencies today in incidents like IRS-NSA-DOJ pincer movements undertaken to cow or silence those who oppose the current American power structure. That’s perhaps another discussion to be undertaken après theatre.
In any case, Mann’s drama doesn’t flinch from touching these visceral fears of mindless injustice on a massive scale, including an obvious and controversial reference to the Truman-ordered bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which one of Mann’s characters speculates might be “war crimes” too. Sounds like moral equivalency. But it’s an argument one can’t entirely dismiss.
While we don’t have a script of TACT’s production handy, the current iteration of the play hews for the most part the Broadway version of the script with just a bit more, as director Banno notes in an insert to the program:
We’re presenting the Broadway script, adding selected material from the film, and introducing a framing device that brings ‘ghosts’ from Hitler-era Nuremberg into a silent dialogue with Mann’s eloquent writing.
The “framing device” consists of silent, background tableaux of Nazi officials and their intended victims that materialize, generally at scene breaks, to hint at the terror of past atrocities. The brief scenarios are actually quite effective without intruding in any way on the play itself. They are, in fact, more effective than the filmed Nazi propaganda backdrops, speeches and martial music projected to the rear of the defendants’ booth. Called for in the 2001 script, they, like many fast-flashing TV and film montages recalling space and time, begin to intrude unnecessarily on the action of the play.
The exception here is the actual series of short yet still shocking clips of murdered concentration camp victims being bulldozed into trenches. They must have been a revelation to 1961 film audiences in an era when movies were still quite heavily censored for content. But additionally, this set of clips is also integral to the German defense attorney’s argument that the introduction of such material was prejudicial to his clients, which is certainly true in a legal sense though not a moral one.
Occasional background music, aside from the aforementioned visual and aural propaganda reminding us of the Nazis glory days, arises and falls throughout the production. The themes and motifs are often interesting, transitioning to and from the human interest interludes that occur between courtroom sessions.
Particularly appropriate in a creepy way, are the deeply tragic opening bars of Siegfried’s funeral music—excerpted from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” aka “Twilight of the Gods.” The embedded symbolism of this music speaks volumes, highlighting the endless human moral dilemmas that form the bedrock of both the actual Nuremberg trials and this play, linking them to Wagner’s mythic world in a way that might shock even that brilliant but morally flawed composer.
But in the main, “Judgment at Nuremberg” itself is a courtroom drama with an unusual twist: A trio of American jurists confront the actions of a quartet of German judges whose ultimate reasons for supporting the Nazi regime range from the despicable to the almost understandable. This is true, at least, in the complicated reasoning of Judge Ernst Janning who holds forth on this moral dilemma late in the play.
While we witness a personal battle on one level between these two judicial forces, we also explore the nature of the law itself, the role of the judiciary in government, and the key role—here largely abdicated—of citizens who, on a personal level, must also ultimately judge what is just and unjust but often fail to do so out of fear.
It’s all heavy stuff, really, and there are no perfect answers. So not surprisingly, it takes a great cast to keep things from bogging down in this play. Fortunately, TACT’s experienced cast is primed for the task and delivered, on opening night, a nearly flawless and often fiery performance particularly on the part of the principals.
Central figures in this drama include the American Presiding Judge Haywood (Craig Miller); military prosecutor Colonel Lawson (Bruce Allen Rauscher); his opponent, German counsel for the defense Oscar Rolfe (Steve Lebens); and, of course, the surprisingly agonized character of the otherwise internationally respected German judge-defendant Ernst Janning (Michael Replogle).
As Judge Haywood, Craig Miller is marvelously subtle as a bland, obscure Ohio judge possessed of a fine legal and moral sense but surprisingly aware of the legal and political quicksand that surrounds this virtually unprecedented case.
In his portrayal of the strongly patriotic American prosecutor, Colonel Tad Lawson, Bruce Alan Rauscher fully embodies the permanent revulsion his character feels for the Nazis, their bureaucratic and judicial enablers and all who passively supported them.
Lawson has seen first hand the horrific end product of the Nazi death camps and has all he can do, both in and out of the courtroom, to keep his furious outrage in check. Rauscher’s interpretation of the role feels genuinely authentic and also embodies the likely reaction of most American soldiers when they confronted, almost without warning, the sheer epic scope of this massive atrocity.
On the other side of the fence are the Germans, notably defense attorney Oscar Rolfe. Played crisply and at times ironically by Steve Lebens, Rolfe has the thankless task of defending the almost obviously indefensible: the actions of four distinctly different judges who, for better or worse, intentionally or otherwise, gave legal cover and legitimacy to Hitler’s insanity.
But Rolfe gives it a go nonetheless, as any honest defense attorney must, doing his level best to tear down the credibility of the prosecutor’s star witnesses, knowingly compounding the horror of their tragic stories. Lebens’ portrayal clearly transmits both the doggedness of Rolfe’s legal skills as well as the moral pain he suppresses, knowing that in so doing, he is ripping open the raw agony of already shattered lives.
In virtually the entire first half of this play, Michael Replogle’s Judge Ernst Janning remains silent, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the court that is trying him. But as the trial nears its climax, Janning—who also served as an undersecretary in Hitler’s Ministry of Justice can remain silent no longer, and finally holds forth at length in the witness box, brutally delivering the truth—or at least much of it—to a startled courtroom.
Replogle handles this key scene with skill, passion, and legal efficiency, delivering it with all the balance and effectiveness the playwright could ever have hoped for.
The remaining roles in this play are medium to small, all essentially in support of the central players yet crucial in their own way to articulating Mann’s story arc as well as conveying the pain of the victims both living and dead.
Notable performances were turned in by Christopher Henley as the sad, broken witness for the prosecution Rudolph Peterson, who underwent forced sterilization at the hands of the Nazis; Mary Beth Luckenbaugh as the frightened, troubled Maria Wallner, unjustly imprisoned for years by the Nazis for the almost clearly imagined “crime” of associating, allegedly sexually, with her elderly and unfortunately (for him) Jewish landlord Feldenstein; and Karin Rosnizeck as the attractive but ambiguous widow Frau Bertholt who makes an effort to befriend Judge Haywood who’s been billeted in her sumptuous house.
The accents of the German characters vary in quality but are generally good. And, as we’ve already related, the portrayals of each character are first-rate. Director Joe Banno keeps things moving in this play, which, while meticulously researched from a legal standpoint, often risks bogging down in judicial nuance.
Aside from the too-busy film backgrounds, our only other criticism of the current production is what appears to be a slightly anachronistic rewrite of the small part of Captain Byers (portrayed by Jorge A. Silva), which occurs shortly after the action of the play commences.
Serving alternately as Judge Haywood’s tour guide and as an official of the court, Captain Byers in this production makes some pointedly acidic observations on America’s own treatment of Hispanic-Americans. The apparent interpolation of moral equivalency is more 2014 than 1947 and seems unnecessary in a play whose universal applicability to all historical time frames is always quite clear.
As is the case with the much-acclaimed film, TACT’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” is a thoughtful, chilling look back on an era of history that many would like to forget but that ongoing post-WW II history has repeated many times since. This play and this fine production open a real-world Pandora’s box of contemporary horror. We can only hope that, as was true of that original box, that Hope still remains in our own time.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
The American Century Theater’s production of Abby Mann’s stage play, “Judgment at Nuremberg” continues through June 28, 2014 at Theater II in Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center, located at 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington VA 22206.
Tickets and Information: Tickets range from $32-40 with a “pay what you can” performance scheduled for Wednesday, June 4, at 8:00 p.m. Regular performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Check TACT’s website for more details and directions to the theater or call 703-998-4555. Ample free parking is available.