“Old Lessons Never Die” (Abby Mann’s “Judgment” in Long Beach) 6-17-05


If, as the bard wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” then let me direct you to a current production that, though seeming of another time, and another era, and based on a film more than 40 years old, offers enduring truths that seem particularly relevant to current events.

“Judgment At Nuremberg” Abby Mann’s courtroom drama about the post-World War II trial of Nazi-era German Judges is having its Southern California stage premiere this Friday, June 17 at the International City Theater in Long Beach.

If you have never watched the film, or have not seen it in many years, you should head down to Long Beach or at the very least to your local movie rental store. As Abby Mann said, when we met recently at his Los Angeles home, “unfortunately, the play is very timely.” – which says as much about “Judgment at Nuremberg” as it does about Abby Mann.

Mann was born in 1927, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant and was raised in east Pittsburgh in a tough predominantly Catholic working class neighborhood surrounded by steel workers and their children who were also destined for the steel factories.

Beginning in the late 1940s and throughout the next decade, Mann wrote dramas for such anthology TV series such as “Studio One,” “Robert Montgomery Presents”,” Cameo Theater,” “Goodyear Playhouse Theater,” “Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents,” “Matinee Theater” and “Playhouse 90.”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” first appeared on Playhouse 90, directed by George Roy Hill (best known today as the director of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”) and launched Mann’s Hollywood career. The 1961 film version directed by Stanley Kramer, received 11 Oscar nominations and won Oscars for Mann (screenplay) and Maximillian Schell as the defense attorney, and featured star turns by Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland..

Since “Judgment,” Mann has continued over more than four decades to write movies, films for television, mini-series and television series that have defied conventional wisdom and spoken out for those whom the larger political forces would seek to ignore. Among his works, “A Child Is Waiting” (1963) discussed the treatment of mentally challenged children and the 1973 TV movie, “The Marcus-Nelson murders” revealed how a young black man was coerced into confessing to a rape-murder he did not commit. Based on a true story, the real defendant was released after the program aired. But the program became famous for still another reason – it launched a series based on the lead detective, named Kojak.

Mann has never shirked controversy, penning, “The Atlanta Murders” which explored the trial of Wayne Williams; “King” (which Mann directed), which examined the possibility of a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King; “Murderers among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story”; “Teamster Boss: The Jackie Presser story,” as well as the films “Report to the Comissioner,” and “Love and War” about Holocaust survivor Jack Eisner. But perhaps one of the most controversial of Mann’s work was “Indictment: The McMartin Case” (which he wrote with his wife Myra) for HBO – about an Orange County couple charged with child abuse — and the lack of evidence against them. On the first day of the film’s production, Mann’s home was burned to the ground. A case of arson that, to this day, remains unsolved.

Mann continues to be engaged by difficult issues. Currently he is working with the ex-Governor of Illinois George Ryan on a book and screenplay about his decision to close death row and abandon the death penalty in his State.

Still of all his screenplays, the one that remains evergreen is “Judgment.” Mann has been surprised at how much more intense certain scenes seem on the stage than they did in the film. He commends the Long Beach production directed by Shashin Desai and all of the actors, particularly the actress who plays Jewish Holocaust survivor Irene Hoffman Wallner “better than Judy Garland.”

“Judgment at Nuremberg” asks questions such as: Is it right for the victors to sit in judgment of the vanquished? What are individuals in general and government employees in specific to do when their government passes laws that appear to break with the very legal conventions they were sworn to uphold. What is the individual’s responsibility?

Mann recalled that the genesis of “Judgment at Nuremberg” occurred at a party in New York City where he met an attorney named Abe Pomerantz, who was a government attorney at Nuremberg (Pomerantz went on to become a legendarily successful securities class action attorney). Mann confessed that he didn’t know much about the trials. Pomerantz said that they were having trouble getting judges of any stature to hear the cases. Mann had no idea of the extent of the trials in Nuremberg, or even that there were trials of doctors, judges and businessmen. But he was curious. Pomerantz suggested he meet with with Telford Taylor, who had served as assistant counsel to lead Prosecutor Robert Jackson during the initial Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership and then succeeded him after Jackson resigned the position in 1946.

“Taylor was a very unusual guy,” Mann recalled. “He had a lot of presence. He was one of those guys who were the first ones into the concentration camps and that stayed with him.”

It bothered Taylor that, after a certain point, the United States no longer wanted to pursue the trials because they needed Germany on their side in the Cold War. Mann recalled that Taylor got him interested when he said, “I don’t know whether this is too austere, but there was a trial of Judges [Taylor was referring to The Justice Trial, as it was called, US. v. Alsotter]. It was fascinating, American judges sitting in judgment of German judges.” Mann became so compelled that he left a $1000-a-week job to write the screenplay on a $500 advance.”

What makes “Judgment” so powerful to this day is the complexity of the characters. No one is without flaws and shifting loyalties. Presiding Judge Dan Haywood, played in the movie by Spencer Tracy is a widower from Maine, a judge who was at the top of no one’s list. He is the model of probity but he is subject to various pressures and influences: Will he listen to the American politican and his fellow Judge’s suggestion that in light of the cold war he should go easy on the Germans? Will he confine himself to the narrow question of whether the judges were just following the laws as the Nazis had written them? Does he accept the contention of his household staff and of a beautiful General’s widow that the average German did not really know what was going on?

By the same token we come to wonder: Is the prosecutor too obsessed, too influenced by what he witnessed liberating the death camps? Is the defense attorney just doing his job, preying on the witnesses’ weakness? Is the defendant Jannings a good man, trying his best to stay loyal to his country as it was caught up in an evil scheme, or did he commit evil himself?

In the film version, Burt Lancaster played “Janning,” a German Judge who appears to be of the highest intellect and integrity, who refuses to be lumped with the “party hacks” and who at court finally rises to make a statement that he was “worse than any of them because he knew what they were and went along with them.”

But it is the power of Mann’s drama that even Janning is unwilling to accept full responsibility. After being sentenced, he asks to meet with Haywood in his cell. Then Haywood tells Jannings “what you said in the courtroom -it needed to be said.” Jannings hopes the Judge understands that Jannings had no idea that that Nazi’s actions were leading to the death chambers.

Haywood responds, in one of the most famous and chilling lines:
“Herr Janning. It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent.”

“A country is not a rock, or a mask,” Mann told me, “it’s what it stands for.”

In “Judgment,” he explained, “Patriotism is the antagonist.”

A subject still with us: The recent votes of France and the Netherlands against the EU constitution clearly show that Nationalism is still a potent force.

Although it would be wrong to compare any current government to that of the Nazis, by focusing on “the Justice trial,” Mann does make us wonder what we would (or do) trade off or remain silent about in exchange for our freedom and our lives of comfort and security.

One can not view “Judgment at Nuremberg” and not think about Guantanomo Bay, Abu Gharid and the Patriot Act and consider the accomodations we make in our post-Sept. 11 world as we juggle our security concerns and military objectives with civil liberties.

“When you think of thousands of people in jail, without being able to see an attorney,” Mann said, “without seeing the evidence against them, that’s not the American way….The question is: How far it can go?”

“Judgment” also made me think about the recent revelation that Mark Felt, a retired deputy director of the FBI, was “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Bernstein’s secret source for their Watergate investigation. To me, this was a very vivid reminder that individuals can act in ways that have historic impact in the defense of their country – even those in the administration charged with enforcing the law. At the same, Felt reminds us that history is made by mortals fueled by motives high and low – and that a free press remains one of the most powerful checks on a government abusing its power.

Finally, “Judgment at Nuremberg” reminds us that our system of laws imposes an obligation to prosecute the criminals before us, an obligation to their victims and that justice must not be denied, because of either emotional or poltical reasons. Our system allows mitigation – but based on admission of guilt and expression of remorse or a justifiable defense (i.e. self-defense). This too is timely.

Nuremberg seems of another time. But it is not.

On June 30, 2005, The United States will hold hearings to deport John Demjanjuk for his war-time Nazi guard service at several concentration camps, including Sobibor, Flossenburg and Majdanek, Demjanjuk, who was also identified by Holocaust survivors as having served at the Treblinka extermination camp was denaturalized and stripped of his U.S. Citizenship (1981), ordered deported (1984), and extradited to stand trial in Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity (1986), the first person to be so charged since Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The Israel District court convicted him in 1988 and sentenced him to death (I wrote a now out-of print book about this trial). However, in 1993 the Israel Supreme, found that new evidence unearthed during the course of the appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, cast sufficient doubt as to his Treblinka service to acquit him and return him to the United States. U.S. Courts admonished the U.S. prosecutors and vacated the prior U.S. decisions. Despite this, the US Government was able to re-file their suit on the basis that Demjanjuk, who has never admitted to any wartime German collaboration, lied about his proven Nazi service and had the truth of his service been known he would never been allowed to enter this country or become an American citizen.

Demjanjuk is now 84. It is easy to say “he’s an old man.” Or to say “he has suffered enough,” or that “we should move on,” or that “what he did was so long ago, it’s between him and his maker, and we should forgive.” I have heard all those arguments, and you can find them all over the Web. I disagree.

I would argue that “Judgment at Nuremberg” has something to say on this issue, as well. It reminds us not to shirk out duty to remind those who commit the crimes and those who acquiesce to them of the evil of their acts, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge their part or not, in the name of the victims who can not speak, and for the sake of justice and the rule of law.

Forgiveness is not a magic wand – it does not relieve us of our legal obligations and moral duty. Rather forgiveness stands apart.

Even the late Pope John Paul II, whom Pope Benedict XVI has placed on the fast track to sainthood, and who visited Mehmet Ali Agca, his would-be-assassin in prison to forgive him, did not ask for the court to release him; nor was Agca allowed even a reprieve to attend the Pope’s funeral. He continues to serve out his life sentence.

Much has been made of South Africa’s commission for Truth and Reconciliation, as a way to “move beyond” a country’s terrible history without trials.However the Commission has made clear that there can be no forgiveness, no mitigation, no reconciliation, without truth, without an admission of what one did.

“Were we deaf, dumb and blind?” Janning asks in “Judgment.”

Abby Mann, in everything he writes, asks: “Are we even paying attention?”

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.