By Bradley Rohlf
“Judgment at Nuremberg” by Abby Mann goes beyond the scope of a typical courtroom drama. In a search for justice, characters ask who is ultimately held responsible for wartime atrocities, but also seek to understand how this all could happen.
The play, produced by the Midnight Company at the Missouri History Museum for six performances, dramatizes the latter wave of post-war trials, specifically the cases of several judges that served the Third Reich and enforced Hitler’s race laws.
Shortly after World War II concluded, the Allied forces organized a military tribunal to try some of the highest ranking Nazi officials for war crimes.
After those trials concluded, the United States military continued to try officials further down the chain of command for their responsibility in contributing to crimes against humanity. While the story is fictionalized, the composite characters and heightened relationships still feel plausible. This is the final military tribunal in 1947, trying three German judges when the pressures of the new Cold War were mounting in Europe.
Director Ellie Schwetye drives a character-focused production. Jonah Sheckler’s set, coupled with Michael B. Perkins’ video design, efficiently set time and place without overwhelming the eye. This allowed the conversations between characters highlighted, brought to life with the aid of realistic costumes by Sarah Porter, and dialect coaching by Pamela Reckamp.
The scenes felt like echoes of the past whose weight and importance reverberated all the way to our stage.
Joe Hanrahan played Judge Dan Haywood. While he was not the tribunal’s first choice, many other justices had declined the invitation due to the waning popularity of these trials. Haywood, however, felt a sense of duty to serve.
The primary focus of this court session is the case of Ernst Janning, played by Steve Callahan. Janning is an internationally renowned legal mind, but continued to serve as a judicial authority in Germany when the Nazis came to power. The prosecution, Colonel Tad Parker, played by Chuck Winning, asserts that by upholding Nazi laws, Janning is complicit in their crimes against humanity.
Cassidy Flynn was arresting as Oscar Rolfe, the German defense lawyer. Flynn embodied a young, ambitious legal mind, dedicated not only to the defense of his clients, but the exoneration of the German people. His character was passionate about restoring his nation’s public image, and he felt the country as a whole was symbolically on trial.
Francesca Ferrari and Michael B. Perkins stand out in their cameo roles as key witnesses, Maria Wallner and Rudolph Peterson, respectively.
A side plot to the courtroom drama involves Judge Haywood’s lodging accommodations for the duration of the trial. He has been provided use of a house in town, the former residence of Frau Margarete Bertholt, played by Rachel Tibbetts. The two end up interacting, and we find out that Bertholt is the widow of a German general, tried and executed by the earlier tribunal. She desperately wants to show that not all Germans are Nazis, and she believes there is a distinct separation between those involved in the military and government, and those at the top who secretly orchestrated the camps.
A quick survey history course paints the war in dichotomies. Villains and heroes. Axis and Allied. Nazi and non-Nazi. We hold up stories like Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler — as we should — as examples of heroic resistance. But when we only look at history through the lens of the most exciting narratives, our view becomes polarized. We forget that there are stories of mundane humanity adjacent to those extremes.
Is it more frightening that Flynn’s performance as the defense had me thinking, you know, he makes some good points, or the fact that ordinary people could be caught up in a political system that legalizes discrimination? And are those individuals complicit in their silence? Or even in their ignorance? Does duty to country supersede duty to justice? And what is the measure of justice?
To a history in which we know all the answers, “Judgment at Nuremberg” brings more questions.
“Judgment at Nuremberg” was produced by the Midnight Company April 25-29 at the Missouri History Museum.