Holocaust Museum: Landmark play asks big moral questions
A scene from Shattered Globe Theatre's "Judgment At Nuremberg" features Maury Cooper as a judge on trial and Brad Woodward as his lawyer.The roles were played by Burt Lancaster and Maximilian Schell in the celebrated film. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 20, 2012 8:14AM
“It is not only Ernst Janning that is put on trial here. It is the German people.”
So says the young attorney defending four German judges during one of the tribunals in Nuremberg following the collapse of the Nazi regime.
Adapted from the well-known and much acclaimed film of the same name, “Judgment at Nuremberg,” the stage play, had a brief run on Broadway in 2001 and an award-winning four-month stint in Chicago in 2003.
Shattered Globe Theatre of Chicago resurrected the play in a full reading Sunday for a packed house at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
“They sat in their black robes and they distorted and they perverted and they destroyed justice and law in Germany,” charges the American colonel out to prosecute the judges.
It’s no wonder that the museum chose for its first full theater reading this play, this examination of moral responsibility in the aftermath of staggering genocide.
In so many of the museum’s exhibitions, special events, programs for visitors of all ages, the museum embraces standing up for what is right and standing against actions that can snowball into unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity.
Noteworthy is that Abby Mann’s film and play chooses not to focus on the best-known tribunal held during the Nuremberg Trials, the first when 24 key Nazi leaders and architects were put on trial for crimes against humanity.
Instead, Mann is more interested in a later tribunal that generated much less interest back home. He wants to ask about the culpability of esteemed judges who were “following the law” and in so doing, destroyed innocent lives. Moreover, he wants us to ponder the culpability of everyday Germans whom, almost universally, proclaimed they had no knowledge of the atrocities that raged on for so many years.
“The play’s powerful and relevant tale of the consequences of injustice and crimes against humanity helps to meet the desire we all hold to achieve a measure of justice — not only for those who were victimized, but also to produce a world in which such ideology can never gain acceptance,” said Museum Executive Director Rick Hirschhaut.
Most people are familiar with “Judgment At Nuremberg” through the 1961 film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won Oscars for actor Maximilian Schell playing the judges’ defense attorney and for Mann and his writing.
But arguably, the film was hindered by a star-studded Hollywood cast that filled out each of the important roles from top to bottom.
Some of Mann’s dialog, already pontifical, was not necessarily aided when it came from the likes of Spencer Tracy or Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland or Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich or Montgomery Clift, although the latter was superb in a small role as a mentally impaired victim of the Nazi machine.
Kramer though knew he could never have made a film about the moral implications of the Nuremberg tribunals — at least not one that reached mainstream audiences — without Hollywood superstars.
Shattered Globe, of course, was under no such restrictions, and the ensemble cast works well together, emphasizing the most important of the play’s Big Questions without distracting audiences from their meaning because of who is asking them.
A particular improvement from the film is the pivotal role of Ernst Janning, played convincingly on stage by Maury Cooper rather than a miscast Burt Lancaster.
In the character of Janning lies the moral center of the work. He was an esteemed judge who came out of the Weimar Republic after World War I and helped frame its democratic constitution.
But within Hitler’s Nazi regime, he lost his way and became a follower rather than a leader.
“A judge does not make the law,” professes his defense attorney. “He carries out the laws of his country be it a democracy or a dictatorship.”
But a destroyed Janning doesn’t want a defense; he knows there can be no defense for the actions of judges like himself.
And so it’s well into the play when Janning speaks out for the first time, shunning his defense, and making a declaration felt by everyone in the courtroom — and the audience.
“It is not easy to tell the truth. But if there is going to be any salvation for Germany, those of us who know our guilt must admit it. No matter the cost and the pain and humiliation.”
It is in Janning’s soliloquy that also provides the context — never excused but simply explained — for the silence and even the participation in the horrific inhumanity that occurred.
Hitler allowed his people to “lift up” their heads, to be proud to be German and to recognize that there are “devils among us,” Janning says.
“But what about us who knew better?”
For Janning and his like, exorcising devils was to be only a passing phase — a necessity borne out of the belief that Germany was in danger.
“The danger past and we looked around and there was more terrible danger,” he says. “What was going to become a passing phase became a way of life.”
“Judgment at Nuremberg” was a fictional account of one of 10 tribunals held in two sets in 1945 and 1946. The second group addressed the actions of doctors and judges among others.
Peter Less was a translator not during the second tribunals but during the first and what was considered the main trial.
Less was supposed to appear Sunday at the museum for a discussion following the play reading, but the 92-year-old lawyer, a Wilmette and Winnetka resident for decades, had to cancel because of health reasons.
In his place was journalist David Rutter who recently interviewed Less about his place in history more than 60 years ago.
Most incomprehensible for many is that most of Less’ family had been killed by the Nazis only a few years earlier; but here, at age 25, he had to sit next to accused Nazi murderers and translate their words.
“And, thus, as Peter Less sat across the plain wooden desk and looked into the cool blue eyes of the man who had built the machine of state that murdered his entire family, all he had to do was still his soul, and be as cool as those blue eyes were,” Rutter writes in the Quintessential New Trier, a North Shore magazine.
Those eyes belonged to Hermann Göring, the infamous military leader and main member of the Nazi Party.
“For six months, they went at it word by word by word,” Rutter told the museum crowd Sunday.
Less was forced to sit still, do his job and make sure the translations were accurate so as not to compromise the process. He realized even then the place the Nuremberg Trials would hold in history, Rutter said.
It wasn’t easy. According to Rutter, Less wanted to stand up and yell,“liar, liar, liar.”
Less came away from Nuremberg always believing that true justice was served.
If it wasn’t, he noted to Mutter, the allies would have proceeded with mass executions of key Nazis, a punishment favored by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin.
To Less, Germans who were tried in Nuremberg more than six decades ago “got a better trial than almost anybody you’ve ever seen in a courtroom,” Mutter said.