"I never wanted to go on stage again." Maximilian Schell settles back into the small sofa in his dressing room at Broadway's Longacre Theater and carefully adds half-a-dozen packs of sugar substitute to his coffee. "Abby talked me into it."
He is referring to Emmy Award-winning writer Abby Mann, who wrote "Judgment at Nuremberg." Originally produced as a television drama for "Playhouse 90" in 1959, and expanded into a feature film in 1961, the work has been adapted again by Mann, this time as a stage play. And he sought out Schell, who appeared in both earlier versions and won an Academy Award for his film role, to head the cast.
Set in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947, the story chronicles the courtroom proceedings surrounding four German judges on trial for their actions before and during the Nazi era. Forty years ago, Schell portrayed the tenacious defense attorney Hans Rolfe in the movie. In this production, he takes the role of Ernst Janning, the most esteemed of the elderly judges being indicted, who was played by Burt Lancaster in the film.
"I told Abby I would be interested in knowing more about who [Janning] is," Schell says. To that end, Mann added new scenes, depicting Janning with his daughter, "who might seem anti-Semitic. It puts him in terrible conflict. I thought that the only tragic hero that could be made from inside this story is Janning. The others mostly stay the same."
Janning, whose character finds people guilty of crimes simply because they are Jewish, "was capable of changing, or not changing - a tragic figure. He made a wrong choice."
As a young boy, Schell himself and his family fled their native Austria in 1938 when he was 8 years old, just before World War II erupted, taking refuge in Switzerland. Reviving the story of Nuremberg at this time, in a major Broadway production presented by Tony Randall's National Actors Theater, gives a new generation the opportunity to experience these stories, he says.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, people thought it was too soon to talk about those times," Schell says. "But this is the central event of the last century, maybe many centuries.... The sense of the tragedy was that, for those people, there was no way out."
Schell's acting career includes several films set in the era of World War II, such as "The Young Lions," "The Man in the Glass Booth," and "Julia," the latter two garnering him Academy Award nominations. "I always tried to go in another direction, but it was those roles that were successful," he says.
His other roles have often been great historical figures, such as Peter the Great, Lenin, and Simon Bolivar. He has made several forays into writing and directing, including the acclaimed documentary "Marlene," about the legendary film actress Marlene Dietrich.
As he does in the film, writer Mann has each German character in the play begin by speaking German, with translators presenting their dialogue in English. After a few minutes, all the characters switch into English.
Actor Peter Hermann, who portrays Rolfe, Schell's original role, with mesmerizing intensity, was born outside of Frankfurt, Germany. He moved with his family to the United States when he was 10, so he had no trouble with the German parts of the text.
Hermann has no memory of the Holocaust era personally, but he says that "the message of the play, to my generation, is to read the newspapers and be aware that war crimes and atrocities are still with us."
Schell agrees, and compliments Hermann on his performance in the role that won Schell an Oscar.
"You see, I had a little bit to do with the creation of that part, with George Roy Hill, who directed it on 'Playhouse 90,' " Schell says. "I thought it would be interesting to have this man defending Germany, this man who was too young to really understand. Peter did a wonderful job."
"Serious plays are rare," Schell observes. "And this story does stand up as a play."
This will be his last stage role, says Schell, who divides his time between a home in California "and a hunting farm in Austria that's been in my family for generations." He finds performing in this production on Broadway "something I wouldn't want to have missed."
But then he adds, "Tony [Randall] asked me if I wouldn't like to do 'King Lear.' It is a temptation."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor