Mann has built his work, which he also adapted into an Oscar-winning 1961 screenplay, around the second set of Nuremberg trials--not the first set, in which Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and peers were tried and convicted. His choice seems to have been determined by a fascination with justice and its miscarriages. The scenarist-playwright apparently reckoned that he could examine the issues by focusing on officials into whose hands decisions on just behavior had been placed. To this end, he came up with a cadre of composite characters based on historical figures. In particular, he scrutinizes one learned jurist, Ernst Janning (Maximilian Schell, who won an Oscar for his work in the Nuremberg film, but not for this role).
In probing Janning's apparent acquiescence, Mann accepts no black-and-white definitions of "the right thing," whether done by an individual or by a country. His courtroom drama focuses on several men and a few women who represent as many takes on ethical behavior as Mann feels obligatory to transmit his indignant message. He has judge Dan Heywood (George Grizzard) presiding with homespun dignity; Colonel Parker, the prosecuting attorney (Robert Foxworth), attacking with a fury fueled by his having been among the first to enter the concentration camps at their liberation; defense attorney Oscar Rolfe (Michael Hayden) cleverly arguing that his man is guilty for going along with the Nazis only if the rest of the world is guilty of the same thing.
These are the most prominent players. To give testimony under oath or simply in conversation away from court, Mann rounds up additional, unusual suspects like Mme. Bertholt (Marthe Keller), a women of noble birth whose husband was hanged for war crimes; Mrs. Habelstadt (Patricia Conolly), a housekeeper who insists that Adolf Hitler did some good things for Germany and that she knew nothing about the bad things; Janning's daughter Thea (Kellie Overbey), who has come to believe that Jews always have and always will cause trouble; and Dr. Wickert (Joseph Wiseman), a judge who quit his post in 1935 when he saw what was coming.
The witnesses don't stop there, and this is a tip-off to how much material Mann has committed himself to probe--how much he wants his appointed figures to exclaim about remaining loyal to one's country, right or wrong, or to expound on drawing the line. As each of Mann's scenes nips at the heels of the preceding one--he alternates action in court with action in anterooms, private homes, and a prison--he reports on the camps, on enforced sterilization, on Aryan laws pertaining to fraternizing with non-Aryans. He gets around to having his Americans champion Franklin Delano Roosevelt's positions or excoriate them. He has some of the Germans maintain their ignorance of what was happening to the Jews and, contrarily, at least one German admit that ignorance wasn't possible. He shows concentration camp footage. He sets things up for Janning and Rolfe to exchange Marc Antony vs. Brutus-like orations that put a stethoscope to the far reaches of the human heart. He has Colonel Parker suggest that Harry Truman might be a trial candidate for his executive orders on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yes, Mann's play, which is patently sincere and searching, is a mouthful. Lots of mouthfuls. Also, because the playwright is intent on freighting his drama with as much information and attitude as possible, the piece has a by-the-numbers feel; some background has been supplied about the characters, but not enough. This is especially true of Heywood, one of those common-sense geniuses popular on stage and screen (Columbo is another) who hide their skills under bumpkin garments. A recent widower who "knows a hawk from a handsaw," Heywood enters into an amorphous relationship with Mme. Bertholt, who formerly lived in the home where he's been billeted. Although it's implied that something more might happen between the two, it never does, nor is it discussed. Heywood brings down the lights on act one by saying that he's doing everything he can to find out who the Germans truly are, but the hint that the play is following his journey from befuddlement to understanding isn't satisfied.
Janning, silent at first because he doesn't want to dignify proceedings with which he disagrees, ultimately says little during the play. In addition to his 11th-hour peroration, he has a scene with his daughter that prompts more questions about him than are answered. With the exception of Mme. Bertholt, who gets the opportunity to explain who she is, what she wants, and that "we have to forget if we want to go on living," the rest of the dramatis personae are more like political postures than people. Aside from announcing that he's 32 and has admired Janning since he was a law student, Rolfe is only a bright lawyer with a robe and a mission. It's as if Mann hasn't so much concerned himself with three-dimensional people challenging each other as he has busied himself with ticking off items on a list of points he wants to make. On many occasions, what is said here is cogent and even subtle, but it is almost always more polemical than dramatic.
It's been John Tillinger's task to stage Mann's didactic adaptation, and he has gone about the assignment with an eye and ear for humanizing the script while minimizing its plodding courtroom aspects and maximizing its theatricality. He counts on James Noone's set for much, and Noone has put the standard benches, conference tables, and chairs into a three-sided, high-walled box of mirrors that reflects the audience during intermission. (Apparently, we're all implicated, as the dialogue sometimes indicates.) Noone slots photographs of those brutalized by the Nazis into each mirror so that, throughout the play, it seems as if the victims are haunting the victimizers. The set is reminiscent of a Christian Boltanski installation, and almost as unsettling. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and sound and music designer David van Tieghem also sting the audience with their effects. At times their handiwork is over-the-top, but it can't be called ineffective.
Then there's the cast, and about them it must be said that there's a whole lot of acting going on. Well, when panegyrics rule, scenery chewing can be expected. But, like the production's agitated light and sound, it can't be said that such an approach is ineffective. Keller and Wiseman know the value of subtlety; and Grizzard, in a role that Spencer Tracy filled seamlessly on-screen, downplays the temptation to make his Heywood merely a hayseed. But Schell, Hayden, Foxworth, and Michael Mastro as a baker's assistant who was sterilized by the Nazis offer broad interpretations of the material as often as the occasion tempts them--and that's often. On the other hand, when sparks fly, fires can be set, and fires have their perverse appeal. (Incidentally, although Schell and Keller may not see it this way, it must take a certain courage for them to perform Judgment at Nuremberg in front of an American audience. And it must take a different brand of courage for Hayden to play the part Schell played in the film with Schell present onstage.)
Throughout his highly successful writing career, Mann--who had a long association with the equally earnest, recently deceased Stanley Kramer and whose next project is about Texas justice--has been regarded as having admirable humanitarian instincts but faulty dramaturgical impulses. For now, that has to remain the judgment on Nuremberg.