LOS ANGELES, July 9 (JTA) — The verdicts pronounced on the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg were the culmination of the “trials of the century,” dwarfing all other claimants to that title.
Twenty-two defendants sat for 11 months in 1946 before a four-man international tribunal of American, British, French and Russian judges. They were the elite of Germany’s political, military and economic leadership, save for Adolf Hitler, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who had all committed suicide.
An upcoming four-hour miniseries on U.S. cable television views the trials through the eyes of their chief prosecutor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, as portrayed by Alec Baldwin.
The docudrama is closely based on Joseph F. Persico’s intriguing book, “Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial,” and displays most of the virtues and defects of this work.
While the basic framework and data are accurate, Persico, who describes his book as “a narrative supported by historical fact,” does not hesitate to enter into the thought processes and musings of the Nazi bigwigs and other characters.
Most of the psychological insights in the miniseries come from Capt. Gustav Mahler Gilbert, well acted by Matt Craven. Gilbert, the son of Austrian Jewish refugees, speaks German fluently and his job is to mingle with the defendants and gauge their moods and possible suicidal tendencies.
The role of Jackson’s secretary, Elsie Douglas (Jill Hennessy), is enlarged, perhaps to provide a feminine touch among all the uniforms and suits. There are delicious, though not particularly germane, hints throughout the series that the relationship between Jackson and Douglas is more than just professional.
On the defendants’ side, the gallery of characters is both fascinating and repelling.
Included are Julius Streicher, publisher of the pornographic Der Sturmer, who is despised even by the other Nazis and who spews his hatred of Jews to his last breath,
By contrast, there is the cool and urbane Albert Speer, head of German war production, whose apparent contrition earned him a 20-year prison sentence instead of hanging.
Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, whose real or feigned insanity also saved him from the gallows, is also featured.
Of the 22 defendants, the tribunal pronounced the death penalty on 12, prison sentences for six and acquitted two. Two people committed suicide while in custody.
But, as in many morality plays, the most interesting and complex character is the chief villain — in this case, Hermann Goering.
The Luftwaffe chief is brilliantly acted by Brian Cox, whose cunning and brutality is camouflaged by a corpulent exterior and generally jolly demeanor.
Goering, Hitler’s designated successor, dominated the other defendants and easily manipulated most of his captors. He won his initial courtroom encounter with Jackson and apparently persuaded his guard, a naive Texan, to unwittingly furnish him with the cyanide capsule with which Goering cheated the hangman’s noose.
Despite some of the film’s weaknesses, including the portrayal of the Russian delegation as hard-drinking buffoons easily outmaneuvered by the clever Americans, “Nuremberg” offers a valuable and mostly gripping history lesson.
The extermination of Europe’s Jews formed a central part of the prosecution’s case, and no moment provides a more chilling insight into the Nazi mind than the cross-examination of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoess.
Hoess testified with a craftsman’s pride that at their peak, his gas chambers and crematoria could dispose of 10,000 Jews in a 24-hour period.
But aside from that, Hoess noted earnestly, he never allowed any cruelty toward his prisoners. He had made it clear to his men, he said, that their job was not to torment the Jews, just to exterminate them.
“Nuremberg” will air over Turner Network Television (TNT) in two parts, on July 16 and 17 at 8 p.m.. The broadcast will be repeated at 10 p.m. and midnight on the same dates, as well as on July 21, 26 and 29.