Stage trials are nothing new. Ayn Rand had a big Broadway hit with one back in 1935: “Night of January 16” was designed to put her philosophy, individualism, to the test. Ferdinand von Schirach’s “Terror,” already a commercial success in Germany, does much the same: It tests the mettle of our morality with a very contemporary dilemma. In the wake of recent attacks it should feel essential. Instead, it’s largely academic.
Major Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) of the German air force sits in a courtroom, a blank stare on his face, accused of 164 counts of murder. Eight months ago, he downed a hijacked passenger jet that was, in all likelihood, heading for a football stadium and its capacity crowd. In launching an air-to-air guided missile, disobeying orders to do so, he saved up to 70,000 lives. The law, however, states he must face trial for the lives his actions ended.
The question, broadly speaking, is whether it is ever justifiable to take one life in order to save others. Emma Fielding’s prosecuting lawyer blithely argues that the constitutions owes each and every one of us our human dignity, only for the defense (an ardent Forbes Masson) to parry with the common sense argument: Koch committed the lesser evil; any of us would have done the same. Tanya Moodie presides over both with a firm judicial authority.
Von Schirach ensures the case is far from open and shut, carefully constructing a scenario that pulls in several directions at once. Details complicate the picture — the indecision of Koch’s commanding officers, the passengers struggling to get into the cockpit — but so do emotions. Events are described with painstaking precision, right down to the four passengers sucked out of the blast holes. A dead man’s wife describes collecting his shoe from the witness box. We’re not just asked to decide between absolutism and relativism, but between action and consequences, intervention and inaction, individual and state.
“Terror” lets us into the legal system — not just to witness the judicial process, but to experience it. We stand in the shoes of jurors, but no matter how seriously one takes the role, each of us, inevitably, falls short. There’s too much information to process, too much at stake to completely detach. Some details snag, others escape you. It’s impossible not to tune into emotions — to project remorse onto Zhangazha’s steadfast certainty, to suspect the prosecution of welling up. How much are you swayed by rhetoric over facts? How much are you persuaded by a soft-spoken woman arguing against a brusque Scottish bloke? The decision, when it comes, comes from the gut, no more or less rational than the pilot’s pull on the trigger.
If anything, however, the conundrum is too carefully constructed, calibrated to hang in perfect balance. It makes a fun thought-experiment, a riddlesome mind game or an undergraduate ethics seminar, but, as effective theater, it’s hard to shake the artifice of it all. You’re constantly aware of Von Schirach’s manipulating hand. The moment you step back, you see through it. Nothing’s really at stake here. We are, essentially, deliberating over hypothetical hypotheticals.
The ending — the judgment, handed down by the audience — blows it. This being a “trial,” our decision stands. The judge has to defer, and the verdict goes into law. Whether we find the defendant guilty or not, we are, in effect, congratulated on making the right decision. “Terror” never holds us to account. It never unpicks the ramifications of our verdict, nor examines what that might say about our society. After eight previews, every verdict’s been the same: not guilty. That’s huge. It means accepting the idea of self-sacrifice, and that the law can be bent to the circumstances. “Terror” lets us off scot-free.