Seventy years after war crimes trials, 'Judgment at Nuremberg' still asks a timely question

Cineview Studios Hugh Timoney plays Ernst Janning, a German judge on trial after World War II, with a certain sad elegance.
Cineview Studios Hugh Timoney plays Ernst Janning, a German judge on trial after World War II, with a certain sad elegance.
Published Oct. 1, 2018

TAMPA — A simple set tells the story. A table for three judges assigned to rule on war crimes following World War II rests on stacks of suitcases, signifying hasty travel. On the floor, by a gallery of defendants, snakes a trail of discarded shoes. Where they were going, most of these travelers wouldn't have needed these items for long.

Stageworks Theatre opened its season with Judgment at Nuremberg, a fictionalized take on the Justice Case of 1947, part of the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings run by United States military courts. The 1959 play by Abby Mann quickly turned into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and Marlene Dietrich. It won several Academy Award nominations and a best adapted screenplay Oscar for Mann.

Stageworks producing artistic director Karla Hartley and Matthew Ray co-direct a cast of 17 in this production, with partial backing from the Florida Holocaust Museum and Tampa Jewish Community Centers. The subject matter still reeks of significance, only in this case with an additional advantage. Mann stipulates to the atrocities of the Holocaust but dwells on a subtler set of issues, namely the degree of culpability among judges who enforced the Nuremberg Laws, which punished and condemned residents to death based on ethnicity.

At least the playwright seems to have been aiming for subtlety, remarkable so soon after the war ended. It even includes references to the indirect responsibility of other nations for creating the conditions that helped Hitler's rise, including American automotive companies.

Such caveats come infrequently and when they do, it's usually the German defense lawyer making them. Derrick Phillips plays Oscar Rolfe, who is defending prominent judge and legal scholar Ernst Janning. Phillips moves around the stage like a practiced litigator; his performance is one of several bright spots in a show that is by turns engaging and workmanlike. Janning, who later casts off his lawyer to make his own impassioned statement, says he came to despise Hitler and the bigotry disguised as patriotism he represented.

e_SDLqThere was a fever over the land — a fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. Above all, there was fear," he tells the court in a monologue that acknowledges his own complicity while arguing for a salutary role he played in mitigating some punishments. Hugh Timoney plays Janning with a certain sad elegance; it's effective if not spellbinding.

It's up to Judge Dan Haywood in the Spencer Tracy role to sort out these complexities. That he can navigate Germany of the 1930s with his homespun South Carolina wisdom is the show's central conceit. Jim Wicker does an admirable job in the role, and we can appreciate his bewilderment when he asks, "What the hell happened in this country?"

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A subplot zeroes in on Janning's Feldenstein case, in which a Jewish man was executed for his friendship with a 16-year-old German girl. Marie-Claude Tremblay and Jamie Giangrande-Holcom give strong performances as Maria and a witness against her and Feldenstein. Kudos also to Elizabeth Fendrick for her portrayal of Frau Bertholt, a sophisticated apologist for looking the other way and an almost-love interest for the judge.

The judge pokes and prods, he listens and overrules, and eventually decides that right is right and wrong is wrong.

"I understand the pressures you faced," he tells Janning, who he has just sentenced to life in prison. Except he probably doesn't.

If the passage of time has revealed a flaw in Judgment at Nuremberg, it is the implication that American goodness and common sense are enough to offset the kind of creeping nationalism it is warning against. To his credit, the judge asks someone early on, "Are you saying the kind of things that happened here could happen at home?"

By relegating that question to its fringes, the play gives us an answer straight out of 1959: Probably not.

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248.
Follow @torch437.