Ernst Goes to Jail

Judgment at Nuremberg: relevant but stiff.

After World War II, an international tribunal assembled at Nuremberg to try high-ranking Nazis for war crimes. But that is not the judgment we witness in Judgment at Nuremberg. By the time the play begins, the rest of the world has gone home, and American tribunals have gone down the food chain to put on trial a variety of professionals who in one way or another collaborated with the Nazi regime — in this case, several German judges. Our impression is that the prosecutors have already gone through all the big and little guns and are down to the blunt objects and common household items.

This stiff courtroom drama, now playing at the Willows Theatre in Concord, was adapted from the Oscar-winning screenplay to the 1961 film of the same name, itself reworked from a 1957 television drama.

The titular judgment is that of Judge Dan Haywood, though he might as well be called Judge Hayseed for all his oh-goshing about how he’s just a provincial judge far from home. George Maguire strikes a nice divide between the public and private man. He’s all folksy charm at his leisure, but in the courtroom he’s stern and authoritative. A good thing, too, because his two peers are empty suits, Judge Let’s Not Make Waves and Judge I Dunno What Do You Think Dan, who creak into life only in chambers, when Judge Dan needs an ethical springboard. The rest of the time they might as well be played by puppets.

The same might be said of two of the defendants, Defendant I Was Only Following Orders and Defendant Unrepentant Nazi Scumbag. The only one of any significance is Ernst Janning, an internationally respected jurist who, despite all his high ideals, played along with the dictates of the dictatorship. The very tall Robert Parsons sits sour-faced and aloof as Janning, refusing to recognize the authority of the court, but the more we hear about him the more he sounds like an honorable man in an impossible situation, and what at first seems like contempt begins to come off as quiet dignity.

That’s very much to the credit of his lawyer, Oscar Rolfe, played with passion and gravity by Mark Farrell. Although we know nothing about him other than his desire to leave the German people a shred of dignity, to draw the line somewhere between crime and complicity, he winds up being the most sympathetic character in the play.

Oh, certainly we can sympathize with Frau Bertholt, whose soldier husband has been executed in a previous wave of tribunals and whose family home has been commandeered to house Judge Dan. C. Dianne Manning plays her with a genteel grace, thinly veiling her sadness as she chats about sights to be seen and goes on little dates with Judge Dan in a hopeless attempt to find some vindication for her dead husband and for the German aristocracy. We feel for Maria Wallner (a grim Sandra Jardin), a good German who testifies to the execution of a Jewish friend for allegedly bedding her shiksa self. We might even feel the pain of another witness (played by David Hardie) who was sterilized, if his personality hadn’t been snipped along with his other stuff.

We believe in Rolfe because his motives seem to be pure, even if a couple of his clients are scum. We also believe in him because he’s a good lawyer, persuasive and graceful and in every way superior to his adversary, Colonel Tom Parker, who is a bit of a tool to begin with (his closing argument is dreadful), but becomes even more so because Robb Bauer doesn’t quite make his red-faced anger, staggering drunkenness, and petulant pouts convincing, only embarrassing.

The play shows its roots in old-style teleplays, opening with an authoritative voiceover about the effort to bring war criminals to justice — context that seems sadly nostalgic when our own government’s conduct is worthy of such scrutiny. There’s also a great deal of expository dialogue. Actually, aside from some social niceties, there’s almost nothing but exposition. Everyone from MPs to maids to matrons of the manor gets to give speeches about how good-hearted the German people really are. Testimony in the trial illustrates a few of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity, though in a way that seems downright demure today. We’ve all heard worse horror stories about atrocities that weren’t nearly so atrocious as those committed there.

The familiar concentration camp films shown by the US prosecutor are horrible, to be sure, but when the German defense counsel protests that they do not speak to the guilt of these defendants, he’s quite right. But he also argues that it’s really the German people who are on trial here, in which case the footage is entirely to the point, even if it’s far too easy a ploy on behalf of both the prosecutor and the play.

The characters are largely utilitarian to begin with, but many seem more cardboard because there’s a large divide in performance between the leads and the supporting cast. Some do a fine job in smaller roles, but they’re mostly too stiff or too broad. The real knockout in artistic director Richard Elliott’s production is Jean-François Revon’s set, which rotates from bombed-out wreckage to stately courtroom to pleasant dining room, bar, and so on. It’s all the more impressive because there are more settings than there are sides to the rotating set, and no two look alike.

There are, of course, many sides to the story as well, and when the judgment comes it chooses between them unequivocally in a way that leaves no doubt as to where the author stands. After all, the play isn’t called Raising Some Questions at Nuremberg. Ultimately, though, the questions it raises are far more interesting than the way it answers them. It would be hard for the playwright to know just how uncomfortably an aside about those who speak of our country’s survival — “Its survival as what?” — would ring today. Just as those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, we should be mindful of our past judgments for the day when we are judged in turn.

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