Wednesday 22 November 2023

The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)

Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Edward Anhalt
Stars: Maximilian Schell, Lois Nettleton, Lawrence Pressman and Luther Adler

Index: 2023 Centennials.

It feels a little strange that I’m reviewing this picture to celebrate its director, Arthur Hiller, on his centennial, because it isn’t flash in any of the ways we might expect from an important director. Hiller made a lot of great decisions when making it but they were a lot more about not doing things than actually doing them; it was notable in 1975 for its script and its lead performance. Maximilian Schell is utterly spellbinding as Arthur Goldman, who may or may not be Arthur Goldman, and was fairly nominated for an Oscar in a tough year; he lost to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Al Pacino was also unrewarded for Dog Day Afternoon. On the writing front, Edward Anhalt got all the credit, because Robert Shaw (yes, the actor), who wrote the source novel and play, had his name removed because he disagreed with Hiller’s choice to make the movie more emotional. After he actually saw it, he was so happy with the results that he asked for his name to be restored, but the prints had been completed so it was too late.

Arthur Goldman is a fascinating character today, though he would have been seen through a different lens in 1975. He’s clearly very rich, given that he lives in a penthouse overlooking Central Park in New York and keeps two million dollars in a box. He’s connected socially, given that he’s scheduled to escort the duchess tonight, though I don’t believe that we’re privy to which or where. He’s also a Jew and a survivor of the concentration camps, an indelible experience that he can’t escape even three decades on. His father was murdered at Auschwitz but he sees him through a telescope pushing a pretzel cart on 5th Avenue; when he looks afresh, it’s now in the hands of a Nazi officer in full uniform. In Schell’s hands, Goldman is initially hard to take. The people who work for him, such as Charlie and Jack, are played by actors who appear to be acting in a movie, as we might expect. Schell, however, performs like he’s in a play, monologuing to the cheap seats with theatrical abandon. He’s not used to conversation. He’s used to being listened to.

We learn a lot about Goldman as the film runs on and, for the longest time, we learn it in his penthouse because, credit or no credit, this was quite obviously based on a play. We don’t leave the penthouse for half the movie and the only people we see for much of it are the three characters I’ve already mentioned, Goldman and his two closest employees, though he does host a dinner party too. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture these early scenes on the stage, just as it doesn’t take much to similarly picture the later ones, in a second and final location, albeit with a much more sprawling supporting cast. For now, though, it’s all about Goldman and what’s going on in his head. He likes to talk and always about himself, so he gives us plenty of information to digest, looking back at his life and experiences. He’s also wildly spontaneous, leaping in different directions at the drop of a hat and expecting whoever’s in his presence to keep up with him. They don’t, because they’re obviously as confused as we are, but it starts to come clear.

As an old and rich Jew, it shouldn’t be surprising that so much of that information is about Jews and being Jewish, though he seems to identify closely with Jesus at one point. What’s far more surprising is that so much of it is about Nazis. It’s not just that he spent a considerable time under their oppressive regime and that naturally flavoured his background, it’s about specific details that start to become worrying. He sings in German. He gestures with a Nazi salute. He even bursts out with a repeated “Arbeit macht frei” in the presence of others, that, of course, being the famous motto on the gates of Auschwitz: work sets you free. He also brings up Col. Karl Adolf Dorff frequently, the Nazi who murdered his father, but not always as another person. He leaves that dinner party unusually, throws his shoes off the parapet of the building, stabs his foot repeatedly onto his wife’s memorial until it bleeds and then sprinkles her ashes over his head. Dorff mugged him, he claims. Dorff wants to be him.

And, if the point is that we’re supposed to gradually come around to the idea that Arthur Goldman isn’t really Arthur Goldman after all, because he’s really Karl Adolf Dorff wearing Jewish disguise, then that point is hammered home to us at the halfway mark when Mossad agents kidnap him so that he can stand trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity. They certainly believe that he’s Dorff and they have the X-rays to prove it. The rest of the film takes place at that trial where, for his own protection, he’s secreted within the bulletproof glass booth of the title, which would have seemed highly familiar to many audience members in 1975 because that’s precisely what happened with Adolf Eichmann. He was one of the key architects of the Final Solution, in charge of the logistics that delivered millions to their deaths, but he escaped American custody after the war and found his way to Buenos Aires, where Mossad agents kidnapped him in 1960 so he could stand trial, which he did in a bulletproof glass booth.

Given that overt comparison to historic events, relatively fresh in the minds of movie audiences in 1975 because that operation was a world controversy and had many knock-on effects in international law, we might expect that this movie would follow the history to the unsurprising conclusion that the Nazi is found guilty on all charges and hanged, as Eichmann was in 1962. However, this has no interest in doing that and I’ll let you find out what it does instead by watching the film yourself. This isn’t either a documentary or a dramatisation of historical events. It’s a drama that asks questions, even if it doesn’t ask quite as many as Shaw’s original novel and play, which were written in 1967 and 1968 respectively, with Adolf Eichmann fresh in mind. Shaw wondered, controversially, if Jews could behave like Nazis, Goldman playing up the personality cult that surrounded Hitler and suggesting that, had he happened to lead the Jews rather than the Germans, they would also have lived and died at his command. This isn’t played up in the movie.

One question that is brought up is why the Jews didn’t attempt to stop the Nazis when it became clear what was actually happening. How could twenty guards successfully round up twenty thousand Jews without being rushed? The answer given is that they still felt hope. They didn’t know for sure what was happening and maybe there was a way out without rushing en masse towards an array of machine guns. Another is why the Germans followed Hitler. What hold did he have over them? The answer that Goldman gives here is that they loved him. He taught them what to fear and how to address it. A final question is whether any of these answers feel true to us, because we should also ask our own questions. That’s emphasised by some excellent supporting performances, including one by Leonardo Cimino, whom I remember as the old Jew in the mini-series of V, the one who made me cry at the age of twelve, telling his family that “They have to stay. Or else, we haven’t learned a thing!” He came close here with me over fifty.

Just as Schell started the film like a performance, not having Goldman speak so much as deliver lines to his audience of employees, he starts the trial like a performance too. Goldman is now performing to the judges, others present in the courtroom and, while we don’t see them, the Jewish people of Israel and the rest of the world. Anhalt writes him monologues that resonate, some because we agree with them, others because we absolutely don’t, but they’re always impactful and Schell nails every last one of them. It’s clear why he’s in a glass booth, pun not intended. He needs to be, because he’s never silenced by testimony and always brutally callous in response. As with any discussion of the Holocaust, we’re aware going in just how horrendous it was but somehow we still come out shocked by what we’ve heard. Hiller could have done so many things to play this up but he doesn’t and that’s genius, right down to his choice to let the end credits unfold without a musical accompaniment. That hits very hard indeed.

I struggled with this film early on, because it made for uncomfortable viewing, not because of the subject matter but because it was hard to figure out what Maximilian Schell was doing. He immediately invites us to examine Arthur Goldman to see what makes him tick. Is he mad? Is he senile? Is he eccentric? Is he just so used to everything being about him that every word becomes performance and every response is simply ignored? He could be any or all of the above, but we can’t stop watching, because Goldman is magnetic and we must find the answer to why. As his paranoia grows, he dips more and more into German and we start to learn things about him that even Charlie and Jack have no idea about, that name of Karl Adolf Dorff starts to become a mantra and there’s a whole new question to answer: is Arthur Goldman really Arthur Goldman? Mossad promptly answer that question for us but we’re never quite satisfied. It can’t be an easy part to play but Schell is never less than captivating. It’s a tour de force performance.

And here’s where Arthur Hiller comes in, because, while he didn’t write this film and he didn’t act in it, he fostered quite a habit of directing films that were highly regarded for their writing and acting, especially in the early seventies. Part of this may be because of his background in plays, so often driven by dialogue, but he was also massively influenced by Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, telling Robert K. Elder in an interview for The Film That Changed My Life that it generated “the strongest emotional feelings”. In order to emulate that in his own work, he always sought out the best writers he could, working with Paddy Chayefksy and Neil Simon on multiple films and keeping them in check with his lean directorial style. The former won an Oscar for writing The Hospital for Hiller in 1971, their second film together. Hiller’s best known and most successful movie is probably 1970’s Love Story, and there he chose to have Erich Segal adapt his own novel. It was always about the writing.

For someone who directed so many American classics, Hiller was actually Canadian, born in Edmonton, Alberta to a family of Jews who had emigrated from Poland in 1912, so his background with discrimination is notably different to so many others, for reasons covered in this film. His father Harry sold second hand musical instruments and was much loved by the black community because, against the norm of the time, he treated them just like everyone else. It was his parents who set him on his eventual career path by starting up a Yiddish theater when he was still a child. He was helping to build sets at seven or eight and he debuted on stage at the tender of age of eleven in the role of an old man. He was eighteen when he finished school and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as a navigator on bombing runs over Nazi territory. When Israel became a state in 1948, he attempted to join its army, but was unsuccessful because he was married. Instead he finished up his degree in psychology and took a job on Canadian radio.

His directorial career began on CBC in Canada but he was soon headhunted by CBS in the States and started to rack up credits on an array of TV shows, mostly dramas, including live TV plays, but including a number of western standards too. He directed seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a dozen for Route 66. His first feature was 1957’s The Careless Years, a drama for United Artists about an odd couple of young lovers eloping to Mexico, but he wouldn’t get another shot until 1963’s Miracle of the White Stallions for Disney. He quickly graduated from TV to feature films as the sixties progressed, with both The Americanization of Emily and Tobruk up for Academy Awards. Having successfully moved from drama to comedy to action, Hiller had become a hot property and his heyday can be fairly defined as the early seventies, starting with The Out-of-Towners and continuing through Love Story, The Hospital and Man of La Mancha to The Man in the Glass Booth, Silver Streak and The In-Laws, seven very different but highly successful movies.

It’s probably fair to suggest that the rest of his career was a gradual downward slide in quality, but the key word there is gradual. He directed many hits in the eighties, especially Outrageous Fortune and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, but he stretched his boundaries too with films like Making Love about a married man accepting that he’s gay. It was the nineties when things started to go horribly wrong, the nadir of his career not being his final picture, National Lampoon’s Pucked, starring Jon Bon Jovi, which really isn’t a good way to end a stellar career, but the ironic disaster known as An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. Alan Smithee is the name used by directors who disown their own films, given that someone has to be credited, and this film was about a director called Alan Smithee stealing his own film and eventually destroying it. Ironically Hiller ended up disowning it because of how its writer, Joe Eszterhas, edited it, so Alan Smithee ended up credited as the director of a film about Alan Smithee directing a film. It won five Razzies.

Outside the director’s chair, Hiller was much loved in the industry, and served terms as president of the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He was a founding member of the National Film Preservation Board and put in sixteen important years securing it vital funding. He never won a competitive Oscar, Love Story being his only nomination, but he was given the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2002 for his philanthropic work, not only to film preservation but to civil rights and educational organisations. A beacon of stability in a notoriously unstable business, he apparently proposed to Gwen Pechet at the age of eight when they were schoolmates. They didn’t marry until 1948, after the war, but remained married for sixty-eight years. She was ten days older than he was and died in June 2016 at ninety-two. He followed suit two months later, leaving two children, five grandchildren and a memorable back catalogue of films and TV episodes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And now beyond any doubt the state they wedged in the middle east has embodied a lot of what made Nazism suck.