Final Judgment: Maximilian Schell Returns to Nuremberg on Broadway

Special Features   Final Judgment: Maximilian Schell Returns to Nuremberg on Broadway
Of the 11 Academy Award nominations accorded "Judgment at Nuremberg," only two turned out to be victorious. And now, 40 years later, these two winners—actor Maximilian Schell and author Abby Mann—have won another day in court, this time at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.
Maxmilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg.
Maxmilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg. Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus

Of the 11 Academy Award nominations accorded "Judgment at Nuremberg," only two turned out to be victorious. And now, 40 years later, these two winners—actor Maximilian Schell and author Abby Mann—have won another day in court, this time at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.

Make that 42 years later. Both Schell and Mann were present at the origin of this courtroom drama, which aired April 16, 1959, on TV’s “Playhouse 90.” Claude Rains sat in judgment, Paul Lukas stood accused, Melvyn Douglas prosecuted, and, rising fiercely to the defense of three German judges accused of perverting the law during the Nazi regime, was the 28 year-old Schell, in a star-making turn—a firebrand burning brightly.

He was no less brilliant in the big-screen version, eclipsing the formidable all-stars assembled by producer-director Stanley Kramer: Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. The cameo work of the last two won supporting Oscar consideration, and Tracy was up against Schell. The role of defense attorney Hans Rolfe has no age requirements, so Schell could have, with justification, taken it on again. "It was offered," admits Mann. "We just told him, ‘Anything you want to do.’" The combination of actor and property had ignited Mann’s imagination, prompting him to turn his teleplay/screenplay into a stage play (his first).

Instead, the actor gravitated toward the part that had intrigued him when he was first presented the teleplay: Ernst Janning, most prominent of the accused German judges, who stonewalls his way through the trial until he finally cracks into an emotional outpouring. Schell remembers being attracted to that character. "I thought this was the role that fitted me most—but, at that time, I couldn’t play it because I was too young.” The part went to Laurence Olivier, who right before shooting began married Joan Plowright and bowed out of the project, leaving the film with a Carlsbad Cavern kind of hole to fill. Burt Lancaster, fresh from his Elmer Gantry triumph, brought size and stature to the vacancy but little else. "Burt was a wonderful guy, and he wanted to be part of this," says Mann, "but he really wasn’t right for it. Max is bringing a new dimension to it."

"Abby is bringing a new dimension to it," counters Schell, “and that is as it should be because a play is a play, and a film is a film. We both were interested in who this guy is." Accordingly, the role has been enlarged somewhat and given a more human dimension. "One of the reasons he gets up at the end and tells the truth about what happened to the German people," says Mann, "is that he sees the new German generation—including his daughter—is really becoming anti Semitic as a way of rationalizing what had happened."

The first time Schell broke into that big moment he was still groggy from jet lag, but his efforts were greeted with tumultuous applause from his fellow players. "It’s nice to have the support of your colleagues," he admits. In this National Actors Theatre production directed by John Tillinger (which officially opens on March 26) , these include George Grizzard, Robert Foxworth, Marthe Keller, Michael Hayden (as Oscar Rolfe), Joe Wiseman, Heather Randall and Michael Mastro.

Inevitably, rehearsals jar a lot of deja vu loose for both Mann and Schell. "Stanley Kramer was quite generous as a director," recalls the actor, "but his best talent was to get the right people together to do it. I tell you, it was a great honor for me to be part of them.

"I’ll never forget Spencer Tracy. He only worked from nine to one—then from three to five again. Usually, people came and said, ‘Quarter to five, Spence. It’s time to go.’ I was doing my big scene at the end one afternoon, and we were running late, and he came to me and said, ‘Do you need me off-camera?’ I said, ‘Nnnnnnnnno.’ He said, ‘You need me,’ and he stayed to six. People couldn’t believe it. ‘For Max, I stay,’ he said. He was wonderful to young actors from Europe. It was, for all of us, always an honor to be there."

"Max is being very modest," Mann injects from the sidelines. "The great success of the movie, as well as the television show, was due largely to his magnificent performance."

Neither made the Emmy running when the first "Judgment" came down. In fact, as Mann remembers it, "the most discussed thing about the TV show was when Claude Rains said, ‘How can you ask me to predict the deaths of millions of people in ––– –––––?’ ‘Gas ovens’ got bleeped out because the show had a sponsor that was a gas company. This was the headline in The New York Times, not that we were the first to talk about German guilt.”

Mann earned a second Oscar nomination, adapting Katherine Anne Porter’s "Ship of Fools," then returned to television for Emmy-nominated adaptations of "King," "Skag," "The Marcus-Nelson Murders" and the latter’s spin-off series, "Kojak," and an Emmy-winning telling of the McMartin child-molestation case. Schell stayed in features, albeit not always as an actor. He was nominated for Best Actor of 1975 (playing an Eichmann facsimile in "The Man in the Glass Booth") and Best Supporting Actor of 1977 (as a spy in "Julia"), and he directed three films up for Oscars: 1970’s "First Love" and 1973’s "The Pedestrian," for Best Foreign Language Film; and 1984’s "Marlene" for Best Documentary.

And, now, both men find themselves back at Square One with Judgment at Nuremberg. For Mann, it is his overdue Broadway debut. For Schell, who was last on Broadway in John Osborne’s A Patriot of Me 30 years ago, it will "probably" be his stage swan song. "I did a lot of plays in Europe," he says. "Not anymore. I never want to go onstage again." Then why this time? Schell smiles that crooked smile of his. "Because Abby asked me."

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