Abby Mann (born Abraham Goodman), the Jewish screenwriter who won an Oscar for "Judgment at Nuremberg," has died at 80. On June 17, 2005, film producer and Journal arts columnist Tom Teicholz wrote a column about Mann called "Old Lessons Never Die (Abby Mann's "Judgment" in Long Beach)." The following is an excerpt from that article.
As Abby Mann said, when we met at his Los Angeles home to talk about a stage production of "Judgment at Nuremberg," "unfortunately, the play is very timely." It says as much about "Judgment at Nuremberg," based on Mann's 1961 film about the post World War II trial of Nazi-era judges, as it does about Mann.
Mann was born in 1927, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, and was raised in east Pittsburgh in a tough, predominantly Catholic working-class neighborhood surrounded by steel workers and their children who were also destined for the steel factories.
"Judgment at Nuremberg" first appeared on Playhouse 90, directed by George Roy Hill, and launched Mann's Hollywood career. The 1961 film version, directed by Stanley Kramer, received 11 Oscar nominations and won Oscars for Mann (screenplay) and Maximillian Schell as the defense attorney.
Since "Judgment," Mann has continued to write movies, films for television, miniseries and television series that have defied conventional wisdom and spoken out for those whom the larger political forces would seek to ignore. Among his works is the 1973 TV movie "The Marcus-Nelson Murders," which revealed how a young black man was coerced into confessing to a rape-murder he did not commit. Based on a true story, the real defendant was released after the program aired. But the program became famous for still another reason -- it launched a series based on the lead detective, named Kojak.
Mann has never shirked controversy, penning, "King" (which Mann also directed), which examined the possibility of a conspiracy to murder Martin Luther King; "Murderers among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story"; as well as the films "Report to the Comissioner," and "Love and War" about Holocaust survivor Jack Eisner. But perhaps one of the most controversial of Mann's works was "Indictment: The McMartin Case" (which he wrote with his wife Myra) for HBO -- about an Orange County couple charged with child abuse and the lack of evidence against them.
Still, of all his screenplays, the one that remains evergreen is "Judgment at Nuremberg," which asks questions such as: Is it right for the victors to sit in judgment of the vanquished? What is the individual's responsibility?
Mann recalled that the genesis of "Judgment at Nuremberg" occurred at a party in New York where he met an attorney named Abe Pomerantz, who was a government attorney at Nuremberg. Pomerantz said that they were having trouble getting judges of any stature to hear the cases. Mann had no idea of the extent of the trials in Nuremberg, or even that there were trials of doctors, judges and businessmen. But he was curious. Pomerantz suggested he meet with Telford Taylor, who had served as assistant counsel to lead prosecutor Robert Jackson during the initial Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership and then succeeded him after Jackson resigned the position in 1946.
Mann recalled that Taylor got him interested when he said, "I don't know whether this is too austere, but there was a trial of Judges. It was fascinating, American judges sitting in judgment of German judges."
Mann became so compelled that he left a $1000-a-week job to write the screenplay on a $500 advance.
In the film version, Burt Lancaster played "Janning," a German judge who appears to be of the highest intellect and integrity, who refuses to be lumped with the "party hacks" and who at court finally rises to make a statement that he was "worse than any of them because he knew what they were and went along with them."
But it is the power of Mann's drama that even Janning is unwilling to accept full responsibility. After being sentenced, he asks to meet with presiding judge Dan Haywood, played in the movie by Spencer Tracy, in his cell. Haywood tells Jannings "what you said in the courtroom -- it needed to be said."
Jannings hopes the judge understands that he had no idea that that Nazis actions were leading to the death chambers.
Haywood responds, in one of the most famous and chilling lines: "Herr Janning. It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent."
In "Judgment," Mann explained, "Patriotism is the antagonist."
Although it would be wrong to compare any current government to that of the Nazis, by focusing on "the Justice trial," Mann does make us wonder what we would (or do) trade off or remain silent about in exchange for our freedom and our lives of comfort and security.
"Were we deaf, dumb and blind?" Janning asks in "Judgment."
Abby Mann, in everything he writes, asks: "Are we even paying attention?"
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