The best news about the film-to-stage transcription of Abby Mann’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” is that, contrary to recent and ongoing Broadway trends, it hasn’t been turned into a musical. The less happy news is that it hasn’t been made into a particularly compelling play, either.
The virtues of Mann’s Oscar-winning screenplay — its sincerity, thoughtfulness and high-toned eloquence — are more or less intact, but its power is nevertheless dissipated on the stage, despite the fine work of a large cast led by George Grizzard and Maximilian Schell, the latter an Oscar winner for his performance in the 1961 picture. And, inevitably, writing that was perceived as hard-hitting and revelatory four decades ago seems a bit old-fashioned and stodgy today. In the years since the film was produced, the forthright earnestness of Stanley Kramer pictures has gone out of fashion, and the complicity of the general German populace in the Nazi monstrosities has been thoroughly explored elsewhere.
It’s easy to see why the project tempted Mann, director John Tillinger and the National Actors Theater, which hasn’t been repped on Broadway since the Matthew Broderick starrer “Night Must Fall” two seasons back. Mann first wrote “Judgment at Nuremberg” for “Playhouse 90” before expanding it for film, so the Broadway staging is something of a return to its original format. But the intimacy of both TV and film helped to heighten the dramatic impact of Mann’s climactic perorations, and crisp editing and fluid camerawork gave the material a tautness and intensity that cannot be reproduced onstage.
Under the dogged helm of Tillinger, the play shuffles between courtroom scenes and others in which Judge Haywood (Grizzard), the self-effacing jurist imported from North Carolina to sit in judgment on four German judges accused of war crimes, explores the uncertain moral climate of postwar Germany. (When the play moves outside the courtroom, the actors involved in the scene move into a forward playing space while the rest, cast in darkness, remain onstage in their courtroom positions.)
With a few emendations, the play hews closely to the well-known film version, and it must be said that decades of exposure to law dramas on TV may leave audiences a bit perplexed at the simplicities of the cases for and against the German judges accused of complicity in the Nazi horrors. Both Robert Foxworth’s Colonel Parker, the military’s prosecuting attorney, and Michael Hayden’s Oscar Rolfe, the German defense attorney played by Schell in the film, seem to base their cases more on powerhouse speeches than a careful marshaling of evidence. Points are scored for each side rather too neatly, as well, with “Perry Mason”-esque revelations and reversals popping up regularly.
Between the carefully timed oratorical climaxes, some first-rate actors give the play regular injections of more subtle theatrical energy. The invaluable Grizzard gives a sly, quiet performance as Haywood, who hides a keen legal mind and high moral standards behind an aw-shucks, Southern-boy facade. He has a natural warmth in the extra-juridical moments, which include probings of his maid’s firm insistence that everyday Germans knew nothing of the cruelties that were being perpetrated in their midst. As in the film, Haywood also engages in a somewhat pro-forma relationship with a German widow, played with sensitivity and efficiency by Marthe Keller.
As the esteemed German legal scholar and judge whose big mea culpa speech is the climax of the court case (and the play), Schell is also excellent. With minimal stage time, he subtly defines his character as a man whose strict rectitude will not allow him to hide behind delusions and easy rationalizations offered up by the other judges. Hayden, saddled with a German accent that came more naturally to his predecessor on film, is solid and assured in the rather thankless role of Rolfe, but he’s no match for the memory of the electrifying Schell.
In smaller roles among what is one of the larger casts to be seen in a Broadway play in recent years, Joseph Wiseman’s extensive stage experience shows in the poignancy and potency he brings to his role as the former mentor of Schell’s Ernst Janning. Michael Mastro, as a supposedly mentally deficient victim of sterilization, has a high old time with his showy courtroom scene. As the German woman whose relationship with a Jewish man was made a test case for the racist Nuremberg laws, Heather Randall is emotionally somewhat underpowered — again, no match for the memory of Judy Garland in the picture. (Randall is the wife of National Actors Theater artistic director Tony Randall.)
In the end, the stage version of the material comes off as less theatrical and less satisfying than the film; the performances come at us from a distance, and register in a lower key. This is probably intentional, an accommodation to changing aesthetic tastes. Richard Widmark’s snarling voraciousness as the military prosecutor would probably be laughed off the stage today, for example. But those slightly stagy, grandstanding performances are what gave a somewhat talky film its power. Manipulative as it sometimes was, the movie had a fervor and an old-fashioned but effective air of moral authority that the stage version fails to re-create.