Abby Mann has revisited a work that began as a 1950s “Playhouse 90” teleplay and evolved into the Oscar-winning 1961 feature. Helmer Shashin Desai has infused “Judgment at Nuremberg” with a deep emotional undercurrent and vitality that overcomes the overly segmented nature of the courtroom drama. Perfs from the large ensemble are immaculate, driven by Henry LeBlanc’s and Maury Sterling’s searing portrayals of the trial combatants, military prosecutor Col. Ted Parker and German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe, respectively.
As in the 1961 film, action is centered on low-key Southern-born Judge Dan Haywood (Barry Lynch), who arrives in Nuremberg in 1947 to preside over the trial of four German judges, accused of crimes against humanity for their part in carrying out the agenda of the Third Reich.
Mann balances the difficulties faced by Haywood and fellow Judges Ives (John Gilbert) and Norris (David Lloyd Wilson). During the six-month trial, ample evidence is presented by attorney Rolfe that these magistrates didn’t make the laws they administered and were not responsible for their outcome. Therefore, the question of loyalty to one’s government and country must be weighed against prosecutor Parker’s contention that these supposedly intelligent and enlightened men, who were on the bench long before Hitler’s rise, owed duty to some greater good.
Additional turmoil surrounding the case comes in the guise of Gen. Merrin, played to the hearty hilt by Edmund L. Shaff, who makes it clear that the judges should be aware that the political reality of the escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union is becoming more pressing than the prosecution of these obscure, low-level Nazis.
Desai creates a fascinating, ritualistic opening to each trial day, aided by the rigid courtroom design of Dan Llewellyn. The court proceedings provide the anguished playing field for two fiercely competitive legal warriors, the tightly wound Parker and the brilliantly logical but emotionally conflicted German Rolfe.
Despite the inclusion of side-trip subplots, mainly featuring the inquisitive Haywood and a sophisticated but emotionally scarred German war widow (Dyan Kane), the forceful veracity of the Parker/Rolfe confrontations creates a tangible dramatic throughline that searingly underscores Mann’s central theme.
Rolfe’s main agenda is his worshipful defense of Ernst Janning (Neil Larson), an internationally renowned jurist and hero of the Weimar Republic who nonetheless served the Nazis well into the war. Larson’s Janning exudes a contemptuous superiority over his fellow defendants (played by Matt Foyer, Alexander Leeb and Gil Amelio) yet is hauntingly effective when he finally breaks down and admits his anguished guilt over the acts he committed for the Nazis.
Parker is bent on proving the horrific concentration camp films he shows at every trial he prosecutes are the responsibility of all Germans who did nothing to prevent the atrocities. As living proof of the Nazi legacy, he offers up a distraught Rudolf Peterson (David Fruechting), who was sterilized for being feeble-minded, and sad-faced Maria Wallner (Silvia Moore), who as a child was imprisoned for befriending an elderly Jew.
Balancing the angst-filled histrionics of the court proceedings is Lynch’s portrayal of small-town magistrate Haywood. He believably projects the judge’s deep concern that his preconceived attitudes about Germany and the German people are not matched by his current experiences in Nuremberg. Particularly rewarding are his scenes with Kane’s exquisitely defined widow, who is trying to overcome her own prejudices about Americans.