Actress Marthe Keller believes the time is ripe for "Judgment at Nuremberg," an emotionally charged play that examines the culpability of German judges who sent hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people—gypsies, gays, but mostly Jews—to their deaths in concentration camps during the Nazi regime.
The play, by Abby Mann, slated to open on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on March 26, is inspired by the legendary Nuremberg trial (1947), and is an adaptation of Mann's Oscar-winning movie (1961). The National Actors Theatre (NAT), founded and headed by Tony Randall, mounts the production.
The material is not unfamiliar to many theatergoers, and Keller knows there is the possibility that some individuals may respond with a collective "Haven't we heard this all before? It's enough."
"I think there might have been more of that reaction 20 or 30 years ago when we were closer to the actual event," says Keller, a Swiss-born, attractive, middle-aged actress who is speaking to us over the phone. She is of German descent and talks with a marked German accent.
"But I feel that now enough time has passed to look at that period again," she continues. "There's distance and the millennium is a good time for a wake-up call to learn from the past and make sure the same atrocities do not happen ever again."
Keller plays Mme. Bertholt, the widow of an executed German officer; she is tormented by his death and convinced that his sentence was immoral. The play itself—more than the character of Mme. Bertholt—drew Keller to the project. Indeed, as she tells it, she felt compelled to appear in this work for a variety of profound and complex reasons, not least the ongoing anti-Semitism in Germany today among the young on the far right, and the lingering anti-Semitism among some of the elderly.
Too Much Love is a Dangerous Thing
Keller is keenly aware of her German heritage and the long dark shadow it casts, no matter how unfairly. And she knows that her German accent—which clearly gives the play authenticity—may unwittingly set off alarm signals among a New York audience that is, by her own estimation, largely elderly and 90% Jewish.
"This is very hurtful to me, but of course I was uncomfortable in the beginning to come here and be in a play like this. I know some of the audience will see me with my German accent playing a character who was the wife [and defender] of a German officer. And some of the audience will have a reaction. One of the reasons you want to be an actress is that you want to be loved…
"Look, I was not even born at the time. I did nothing wrong. And even those who were alive were not all monsters," she asserts. "My father left Germany in 1930 because he knew there was something terribly wrong. He always said, 'Love of fatherland is great. But too much love is a dangerous thing.' " She pauses to add, "If he knew I was doing this play, he'd be very proud of me."
A passionate advocate of humanistic ideals, Keller insists that to this day, she is uncomfortable in Germany and Austria. "There are some wonderful things there, but something of the past remains. I don't know what it is, but I have never been able to stay in those countries for too long."
Keller has spent the last 30 years of her life living in Paris (she speaks four languages). Even in France, she almost refused to perform the title role in Shaw's "St. Joan" one night because the anti-Semitic fascist Le Pen was scheduled to be sitting in the first row.
"I was under a lot of pressure because, if I refused to go on, the whole cast would have been out of work that night. And maybe I was giving Le Pen too much significance. It was not as though I was going to pose for pictures with him. It was a real conflict for me. As it turned out, he never showed up anyway."
Keller, who has appeared in all media, is perhaps best known for her movie work. Among her film credits are "Marathon Man" (with Dustin Hoffman), "Black Sunday" (with Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern), "Fedora" (with William Holden), and "Formula" (with Marlon Brando). She also directs opera; indeed, she recently won the Critic's Prize in Paris for her production of Poulenc's "The Dialogue of the Carmelites."
"I Have to Like Her"
While Keller usually researches the characters she plays, specifically, if they're based on biographical figures, she did not investigate Mme. Bertholt, a composite of real-life German women, whose husbands were officers on the German side. Indeed, Keller even refused to see the movie, "Judgment at Nuremberg," starring Marlene Dietrich as Mme. Bertholt. Keller believed approaching the role with no preconceptions was the best way to go.
"If I saw the movie and was impressed by Dietrich's performance, I'd end up imitating her, and I didn't want that," notes Keller. "And I didn't need to do research because the character was totally believable as written. Also, I didn't want to find [through research] that Mme. Bertholt was a bad person. That would be too depressing. As an actress, I have to like her.
"I do like her," Keller underscores, "although she is a little bit of a snob, hides behind her aristocracy to protect herself. The key question is, 'What did she know?' I play her as if she's totally honest when she says that she really didn't know what was happening. She knew there were concentration camps, but saw them as work camps. She did not know the horrors. Yes, there's a thin line between not knowing and not wanting to know. But what could she do if she did know? She raises that question and it's a valid question.
"We do know that she was obsessed with the unfairness of her husband's execution—specifically, that he was hung as if he were an officer in a concentration camp. He was a war criminal, part of a particularly horrible German attack on American soldiers in Belgium, killing 87. And as awful as it was—war is awful—it's not the same as being a Nazi in a concentration camp."
Keller wishes that that distinction had been made in the play, and regrets the fact that the event involving Mme. Bertholt's husband, dubbed the Malmedy case, is not touched on. She also feels more mention should have been made of the German resistance to Nazism.
The Freedom to Say "No"
Keller grew up on her father's farm in Basel, Switzerland, where he raised racing horses. Keller's early ambition was to be a ballerina, and she started studying dance when she was six years old. A skiing accident, however, put an end to those dreams; she then set her sights on an acting career.
During her college years—Keller majored in sociology and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt—she also studied acting in a private theatre school, and made some extra money as a model. She admits frankly that her academic endeavors were undertaken, at least in part, to offset "my fear that I was too superficial." She chortles, "I'm a hit parade of insecurities."
Whatever insecurities she might have, she has worked steadily (almost from the outset) in theatre, film, and opera—in the latter, as a director and performer. "No, I don't sing; I do sprechtstimme. That's speaking on the note."
Keller started directing operas because, quite simply, someone suggested it. "I need to be told to do this or that before I think about it," she says nonchalantly, thus proving that she is a "hit parade of insecurities."
Doubtless, Keller has been one of the fortunate few. Except for early on in her career, she has never had to audition for any part. More impressive, she has never held a "day job," and acknowledges that one of the luxuries in her life has been "the freedom to say no to work that I don't like. It's very important for me to like the play, to feel that it is saying something. That's more important than whether or not I feel the part I'm being considered for is good for my career." She emphasizes, "I also don't buy fancy cars."
Drawn to the Challenge
As noted, Keller felt deeply motivated to appear in "Judgment at Nuremberg," and she recognizes her connection to Mme. Bertholt, which, paradoxically, makes her both easy and difficult to play.
"She's lonely, and in some ways right now so am I, living away from my family. And, like Mme. Bertholt, who had to leave her luxurious surroundings for a much more modest setting, so have I. When I first came to New York, I was in a grand hotel. Now, I'm in a small apartment.
"Because it's in part so easy for me to play her, I'm afraid of becoming too superficial in my performance. I'm not scared to go on stage, and that almost scares me. Therefore, I have to concentrate that much harder. In preparation for the role, each day I read up on the period."
"Challenge" is a word Keller does not use in connection with acting, she insists. Still, she concedes that one element that drew her to playing Mme. Bertholt was, yes, the challenging element—specifically, the fact that this is the largest part Keller has played on stage in English.
"At the dress rehearsal, I panicked. I suddenly realized that if I forgot a line, I don't have the English synonyms on hand to improvise!"
So far, mercifully, nothing untoward has happened on stage; or, for that matter, in the audience. And Keller's ears are peeled. Still, there was one collective response that troubled her.
"We were performing for a group of school kids, and when I said the line, 'If we want to live, we have to forget,' they applauded approvingly. That bothered me. That's a hard line for me to say because I don't believe it, although Mme. Bertholt does. Abby [Mann] sees her point as well. My reason for doing this play is that we mustn't forget."q
PULL QUOTE: "There are some wonderful things [in Germany and Austria], but something of the past remains. I don't know what it is, but I have never been able to stay in those countries for too long."