September 18, 2019

Nuremberg Reprised

Actor Christopher Plummer was bewildered by the response to his monologue on the set of “Nuremberg,” the four-hour TNT miniseries about the war-crimes trial of 22 members of the Nazi high command. In the series about the trial of the 20th century, Plummer is Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the British prosecutor; in his monologue, he simply, elegantly, describes the last moments of the Jews of Dubno, who comforted one another before they were shot at the edge of mass graves.

As Plummer spoke of an elderly woman, a cooing baby and a 10-year-old boy, Alec Baldwin, the movie star who had agreed to make a rare TV appearance in “Nuremberg,” “looked on with wet eyes. And by the end of the first take, the entire cast and crew could not hold back their approval. “We were not only in tears, but we applauded, which is very rare on a set,” said actress Jill Hennessy, who portrays Elsie Douglas, the assistant to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (Baldwin).

Then again, nothing about the “Nuremberg” project was ordinary, actors and filmmakers told the Journal.Screenwriter David W. Rintels, for example, was selected in part because his father had been a prosecutor at Nuremberg and because he had lived for a time as a boy in that ravaged city. Casting director Vera Miller, charged with finding actors who resembled the Nazi defendants, herself survived the Nazis by posing as Christian with her twin sister in a small town near Bratislava. The memories came flooding back, she says, during the audition process, when she worried she would break down as she listened to the actors delivering their lines again and again.

Then there was actor Sam Stone (playing Der Sturmer publisher Julius Streicher), the son of death camp survivors, who was so overcome during one scene that he could barely stay in character. There was the set, meticulously re-created from vintage photographs, which was so eerily realistic, according to Baldwin, that “it was harrowing for the first couple of days.” And there was the script, closely based on historian Joseph Persico’s best-seller, “Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial,” with every word of courtroom dialogue gleaned from trial transcripts.

Persico’s remarkable book, which is being reissued in paperback (Penguin, $15.95) to accompany the miniseries, begins with an image that was scorched into the author’s brain: a wire service photograph of Nazi leader Hermann Goering, his face contorted in death, just after he cheated the Nuremberg tribunal out of executing him by swallowing a cyanide capsule in 1946. The then-15-year-old Persico, whose five uncles had served in World War II, saw in the dead Goering a deeply satisfying closure to the war, a triumph of good over evil. But it was not until Saddam Hussein put war crimes on the front burner once more in the early 1990s that he secured a book contract to write about his boyhood obsession.If serendipity is the historian’s silent partner, Persico had more than his share. While chatting at a cocktail party in an artist’s colony in Mexico in 1991, a friend revealed a surprising fact about their hostess, a stately Scotswoman: “Katy was at Nuremberg, you know,” the woman said. In fact, Persico discovered, she had been a researcher for the prosecution and had carried large portions of the trial transcript halfway around the world, which she promptly placed at his disposal.

Back in the States, Persico secured a directory of Nuremberg alumni and set off to interview prosecutors, researchers and prison guards who had never before spoken of the trial. “I didn’t want to tell the story as legal history,” he explains. “I wanted to tell it as the human drama it had to have been.”The human drama is exactly what drew executive producer Peter Sussman and the other television folk who were brainstorming about potential projects several years ago. TNT was looking for war-related projects, Sussman suggested, so why not pitch the Nazi war crimes tribunal that had never been tackled save in the highly fictionalized 1961 Stanley Kramer film, “Judgment at Nuremberg”?

In the TNT version, accuracy had the highest priority. Early on, director Yves Simoneau and the production team traveled to Nuremberg to visit the old courtroom in the Palace of Justice, a huge, gray, Gothic edifice on the Furtherstrasse. They perused the Palace’s library for photographs of the original courtroom, which, they learned, had been illuminated by harsh florescent lamps so photographers could shoot without the distraction of flashbulbs. They learned about the Jewish psychologist Gustav Mahler Gilbert, bespectacled and grave, who began as an interpreter in the cell block and became an analyst and confidant to the Nazis, all the while obsessed with understanding their murderous impulses.

The filmmakers also secured the astounding concentration camp footage that was shown publicly for the first time at Nuremberg; Simoneau decided to use a full six minutes of the film in one scene, played without any dialogue or sound save the whirring of the film projector. The effect was devastating on the cast and crew.

Hennessy recalled arriving at the shoot that was to record her character’s response to the footage. The actors who played the Nazis had been recorded earlier that morning, and as they filed off the stage with grim faces, they warned her to steel herself for a difficult day. Apparently, Stone, the son of survivors, had collapsed in tears at one point and was comforted by another actor who as a boy had been a member of Hitler Youth.

The concentration camp imagery was not new for Hennessy (“Law & Order”), who has been reading about the Holocaust since viewing the Auschwitz drama “Playing for Time” when she was 11. Nevertheless, she says, the effect was “brutal.” With cameras rolling, eight extras fled the set, never to return. “I just forced myself to look at the footage,” she says. “The whole art of that scene was trying not to just sob.”