Movie trivia fanatics will recognize the 1975 feature “The Man in the Glass Booth” as the only production within the American Film Theatre canon to receive an Academy Award nomination: Maximilian Schell as Best Actor. But there is hardly anything trivial about the film or the stunning performance at its center. Dwelling on complicated themes of guilt, justice and retribution, the film is a shattering experience and its long-overdue DVD debut will help bring it to new audiences who must come to appreciate what it has to offer.
Based on the play by British actor Robert Shaw (who, strangely, insisted that his name be removed from the credits), “The Man in the Glass Booth” is about one Arthur Goldman, a New York real estate mogul and man-about-town who rules his empire from a sweeping penthouse apartment. Yet Goldman achieved great financial and social success while carrying a heavy emotional burden: during the 1940s, Goldman survived the Holocaust while his family perished in the concentration camps. The undercurrents of this trauma begins to increasingly surface, to the point that Goldman hallucinates that he spies his dead father and Nazi officers on the streets of New York.
As Goldman’s behavior becomes marked with excessive anxiety, the curious constant presence of a Mercedes parked outside of his apartment building becomes his obsession. While his aides and staff dismiss his concerns, Goldman becomes more paranoid and bizarre in his behavior. But it would seem his paranoia is not without reason: the Mercedes belongs to Israeli intelligence agents who identify Goldman as being Adolf Dorf, a long-missing Nazi commandant responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews during wartime. The Israelis spirit Goldman/Dorf back to their country to stand trial, where he is encased in a bulletproof glass booth in the courtroom. On trial, Goldman/Dorf gleefully gives a harrowing account of the sadism and cruelty, which he inflicted on his victims. But in the midst of the trial, evidence abruptly emerges that throws the identity of the man in the glass booth into a shocking surprise.
The heart and soul of “The Man in the Glass Booth” is, without debate, Schell’s full-throttle performance as a man whose claims of living nightmares may or may not hide a buried life as a brutal accused sociopath. The performance is admittedly at a fairly high intensity for dramatic effect and more than a little loud, especially in the courtroom sequence when Goldman/Dorf details the torture he put upon the concentration camp prisoners to work them to death in a futile exercise of carrying rocks for no real purpose. Yet Schell, a wonderful actor who curiously never gets the great roles, does not go into the outrageous hammy overkill that plagues notorious scenery chewers such as Al Pacino or Kirk Douglas. If anything, the material clearly keeps the threat of overacting in check thanks to the richness of the character’s multi-faceted history, which affords Schell an extraordinary depth to plumb: a business tycoon who achieved great wealth by inventing his own rules, a societal outsider (Jewish, immigrant, entrepreneurial) who achieved deification among the New York social elite (WASP, old money), a Holocaust survivor who cannot come to terms with his survival while his family was lost, and a Nazi officer who mocks his Jewish captors by unapologetically recalling his love for Hitler and his contempt for his prisoners. As the character of Goldman/Dorf is invented and reinvented throughout the film, Schell fills the endless dimensions of the man’s life and mind frame with an amazing level of anguish coated with a layer of enigma that keeps a tinge of mystery to the happenings. By the film’s heartbreaking denouement, the power and energy has been completely drained from his existence and the glass booth provides a physical boundary to the painful solitude of his existence.
Needless to say, the rest of the cast cannot keep up with Schell and the main fault of “The Man in the Glass Booth” is the lopsided level of the acting. Everyone else in the film is reacting to Schell rather than coming up to him as an intellectual or emotional equal. The film, from a production level, also has the less than flattering trademarks of the American Film Theatre offerings: stagy sets, an air of low budget, and direction (from Arthur Hiller) which barely hides the theatrical roots of the piece.
But through the intelligence of the film’s screenplay (credited to Edward Anhalt) and Schell’s powerful interpretation of the title role, “The Man in the Glass Booth” tackles difficult and disturbing subjects with a maturity that is rare in films and, truth be told, even rarer in real life. The film poses questions about cruelty inflicted on others and inflicted on oneself, and the answers will haunt and trouble the intelligent viewer long after the end credits have run their course.