Judgment in Berlin Reviews

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Super Reviewer
June 20, 2011
During the days of the Berlin Wall a trial in that city for a East German who freely admits that he hijacked a passenger flight in order to escape to the West. Directed by Sean Penn's father, Leo, and including a centerpiece performance by Sean himself, this Martin Sheen production (with a star turn given by Sheen as well) reeks of sentimental liberalism but is nonetheless touching.
½ October 31, 2011
American homeland viewers might not be interested or touched by this movie, but those who lived on the Eastern side of the Iron Courtain, understand very well what it meant to flee to the West and leave everything and everybody behind - maybe for good. People even chose to say goodbye to their parents, brothers, sisters, first loves or childhood playgrounds, everything - and could not have known if they will ever see them again in life.
September 29, 2010
Liberty and Justice for All?

I was in a hospital emergency room when the Berlin Wall fell. If I remember correctly, I had gotten a piece of glass embedded in my foot. This happened; I had a concrete floor in my bedroom and a preference for walking barefoot, so any glass broken had the potential to leave shards which would stand a chance at working their way into my feet. I still wander around barefoot, including outside when weather permits, and I've only had to go get glass dug out of my foot once since moving out of that basement. At any rate. It's a very clear memory, as it happens. I'm about as young as Americans get to have nuclear war be their greatest childhood fear. I remember watching the chaos of Tienanmen Square on my TV one Saturday morning. The Cold War ended, and I was there to watch it. I wasn't old enough to remember the events here, which occurred in 1979, but things of this nature were part of my worldview as a child.

Helmut Thiele (Heinz Hoenig) is an East German. As is so often the case, he'd quite like to be a West German. And so he hijacks a plane. Like you do. With a toy gun, even. However, NATO had just cajoled the Warsaw Pact into signing an international treaty agreeing to prosecute any hijacker who landed a plane in their territory. Ergo, Helmut had to be either tried under West German law or be extradited to East Germany. Since he landed in the American Sector, the US State Department agrees to try Thiele, importing for the occasion American judge Herbert Jay Stern (Martin Sheen). German law abolished the jury trial in 1924, but Stern held that, if the defendants (including Sigrid Radke, played by Jutta Spiedel and actually named Ingrid in real life) were to be tried in an American-run court, they were entitled to the protections of the American Constitution. Which included such niceties as juries and Miranda rights.

The thing is, at the time, the West German government really wanted to encourage escapees. And there were all kinds of fascinating escape attempts, successful and not. Figures of how many died vary but are generally believed to be at least a hundred or so. Five thousand or so are known to have made it through, over, or under the wall. Thiele and Spiedel's case doesn't count in that, of course; their case did not involve the Wall. However, yes, all possible assistance was provided. They most assuredly did not want to prosecute. However, they'd want other hijackers prosecuted, even if they landed in Warsaw Pact territory. It was a hard-fought battle, still too precarious to risk for two people. Though I imagine they must also have felt considerable satisfaction that the other passengers on the plane had a chance to defect as well. One of them, in a minor role, was played by Sean Penn, who tells a story of a failed Wall attempt. Really, it's the main reason the State Department didn't want a jury trial. They didn't believe ordinary West Germans would convict.

What was touched on here and there but not really explored was the idea that Stern was Jewish. I had thought the law abolishing jury trials dated to the Nazi era; it seemed like something the Nazis would have done. On the other hand, it doesn't seem as though it's a Nazi innovation which would have been let stand. As it turns out, it was a judicial belief that the law is too complicated to leave to the untrained. It's not necessarily a faulty argument. However, Stern was probably under the same misapprehension as I. It just seems so probable. Certainly Stern was determined, at least movie Stern, that the abuses of the Nazi court system should not be perpetrated in his court. The defendants would get a jury trial. They would get a fair trial, and he was not going to apply undue pressure to the jury as the State Department wanted him to. And, of course, Martin Sheen does a fine job of it just as he did a fine job as President.

It wasn't, but it feels like a made-for-TV movie. It's not that it's got poor production value; I mean, it was filmed on location at least. While Sean Penn wasn't as respected then as now, he still wasn't entirely small change. Martin Sheen has never had the fandom of either of his sons, but he's no C-lister, either. It just feels . . . small. Maybe it's the narrowed focus. I think, especially given the title, that they were going for [i]Judgement at Nuremberg[/i], which I suppose was similarly narrow. They also both seem more interested in the judge. In both cases, the trial is of major importance. I mean, yes, in this instance, it's one small part of a larger conflict. No one here is a big deal. This is one small man. It's one small case. Any number of people found a way out of the Iron Curtain in any given year. It's just how this one small man chose to get away. It's just how the judge chose to handle one small case. Maybe it's that which makes the story seem unimportant, not the movie itself.
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