'Judgment at Nuremberg': Maximilian Schell, Stanley Kramer's Widow Reflect on Film's Legacy 50 Years Later

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Marvin Hier, left, Maximilian Schell, Karen Sharpe Kramer and Larry King

At an Academy tribute, Karen Sharpe Kramer reveals that all the Hollywood studios initially resisted the idea of a Holocaust movie because it hadn't been done before.

BEVERLY HILLS -- During a 50th anniversary tribute Tuesday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to honor producer-director Stanley Kramer's acclaimed 1961 drama Judgment at Nuremberg, actor Maximilian Schell said he never wanted to play the role of the lawyer defending Nazi judges accused of complicity in war crimes for which he won a best actor Oscar. 

"I wanted to do Burt Lancaster's role as the Nazi judge who doesn't say much," Schell said.

But Kramer insisted Schell reprise the role that he had already played in a 1956 Playhouse 90 drama on television written by Abby Mann, who also wrote the movie. So Schell, who barely spoke English at the time, joined an all-star cast that included Richard Widmark, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and Spencer Tracy, who Schell beat out for the best actor Oscar half a century ago.
"Later," said Schell with obvious pleasure, "I did play that role on Broadway."

Now 80, with a head of white hair and a glint in his eye, Schell clearly relished his first trip to the U.S. in five years, his moment in the spotlight and the praise for a movie that helped make his career. In recent years, Schell has remained active directing opera.

Schell was interviewed by Larry King, who repeatedly tried to get the actor to answer his questions about the role. But Schell went off on a tangent each time, talking about his life, his work, his friends and finally memories of making the movie.

Explaining he was Swiss, Schell first attributed his casting in the movie to his father, who told him to study Greek and English, so he could read Shakespeare in its original language. He credited that advice with getting him a role on Playhouse 90, where he acted in English and was seen by director George Roy Hill, who cast him in the Playhouse 90 version of Judgment at Nuremberg.

Kramer saw him in that role on TV and insisted Schell do the movie as well, although he recast some of the other key roles.

Schell played a defense attorney at a "justice trial" in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947 representing Nazi judges who were complicit in war crimes because they had enforced government orders that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews and the death of millions of others. Although fictionalized, the epic drama was based on actual war crimes testimony.

Schell was nominated as best actor for the role -- in the same category with Tracy, whom he beat out.

Was winning a surprise, asked King? Schell thought about it for a while before squeaking out a qualified "yes," but clearly he wasn't very surprised.
"I had already won the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Award," he explained.

The picture's other Oscar win, from among 11 nominations, went to Mann for his screenplay.

"The movie was a trailblazer," declared Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Oscar-winning documentarian, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "Until then people thought the Nazi's were all thugs; but this film said to the world these were very intelligent people."

Hier added: "It was good people that went along with Hitler that made this possible."

Kramer's widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, said that all of the Hollywood studios resisted the idea of the movie. No one had done a story that really dealt with the Holocaust until then. It was only 14 years after the war and the world had yet to come to grips with the Nazi atrocities.

"They asked (Kramer), 'Did you lose someone in the Holocaust?" recalled his widow. "He said, 'No, but I'm Jewish. I guess that is personal enough.'"

Kramer, whose credits included Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Inherit the Wind, was known as a director and producer of great courage who never shied away from controversial subjects or hot topics even when it would open an old wound.

The movie is relevant today, said Karen Kramer, because there are those who don't believe the Holocaust ever happened. Hier agreed, pointing to the President of Iran, who has claimed repeatedly there wasn't a holocaust.

The movie was shot in a short three months, said Schell, mostly on location in Los Angeles. Karen Kramer explained her husband wanted to shoot in Germany, but the courtroom he needed was not available to him, so he re-created it in L.A. and shot some exteriors in Germany.

Tuesday's program opened with taped tributes to Kramer and the picture from Tom Brokaw, Alec Baldwin and William Shatner, who as a young actor had a minor role in the movie.

After the panel, the Academy screened a newly struck 35 mm print of the three-hour, 10-minute picture, struck from the original negative.

As the panel discussion ended, Schell insisted that they all come back afterward and talk for at least 15 more minutes about the picture.

He still had more to say.