The Man In The Glass Booth Review
There have been many attempts over the years to depict the horror or the effects of the Holocaust on film, but it’s a subject fraught with pitfalls for any filmmaker. It’s doubtful that the true nature, sheer enormity and complete obscenity of such an event can ever be conveyed on the screen and it’s telling that perhaps the most effective film on the subject – Alain Renais’ short documentary film Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) – is mercifully concise and restrained, yet ugly, brutal and shocking. Even Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is weighed down by its distancing glamorous cinematography and well-meaning pathos that distorts its message with bloated sentimentality. One other way of dealing with the subject – which many feel is no more effective – is to attempt to confront the subject with humour since the matter is too absurd to confront rationally, as in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. This black, absurdist approach is taken by Robert Shaw’s controversial stage play and its American Film Theatre adaptation, The Man In The Glass Booth.
Albert Goldberg is a successful and absurdly wealthy businessman living in a New York penthouse apartment, surrounded by assistants and advisors. He has a few million dollars lying around in drawers, just in case it is ever needed. A survivor of the Holocaust, Goldman however still has paranoid flashbacks and is in danger of losing his mind. He sees his dead father selling pretzels outside down on the street and uniformed Nazis closing in on him. Is Goldman suffering from survivor’s guilt or does he hold a deeper secret? One day his home is invaded by Israeli agents who confirm his identity as Adolf Dorff, a former brutal Nazi commandant of a concentration camp. Arrested and put on trial in Israel, hidden behind a glass booth as much for his own protection as to protect the courts ears from his outrageous statements. Although he has been living in fear of capture, Dorff relishes the opportunity to stridently put forward his defence. If he is guilty of the attempted extermination of the Jews, he argues, then so too is not only the whole German nation, on whose behalf he was acting, but all non-Jewish peoples who knew what was going on and were silently complicit in the crime.
Shaw’s play takes an interesting angle on survivor’s guilt, the deep-rooted psychosis that the Holocaust has had on the Jewish psyche and plunges deep and controversially into many previously unexplored areas, but – at least in Arthur Hiller’s filmed version of the drama for the American Film Theatre – he doesn’t succeed, coming across as too damned clever to really get to the nature of the survivor’s trauma. The first half of the film before Goldman’s arrest is one of stultifying tedium, bad acting, overacting, obscure dialogue and poorly drawn characters. The second half of the film detailing the trial is more interesting and edgy when it raises the complex questions of the Holocaust and survivor’s guilt, but the performances here are even more mannered, and the script somewhat over-egged. Perhaps Donald Pleasence brought a quiet madness to the original stage role, but Maximilian Schell – nominated for an Oscar, maybe more for the edgy duality of his role as a Nazi-Jew than for his actual performance here – chews up the scenery, spits it out and has the script for dessert. Hiller clearly felt that the filmed version of the play needed to spell its madness out a little more obviously for a cinema audience, so Schell (perhaps intentionally) treats us to complete caricatures of both his Jewish and Nazi roles. It’s an approach which wasn’t to the liking of the author Robert Shaw (better known as an actor in From Russia With Love and Jaws) who had his name removed entirely from the film’s credits.
There are some interesting issues raised in The Man In The Glass Booth, but they are unfortunately buried deep within a rewritten script and a performance which goes far beyond The American Film Theatre’s original principle to faithfully present classic drama and stage performances on the cinema screen.
The Man In The Glass Booth follows the AFT releases of The Homecoming, Butley and A Delicate Balance as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of high quality extra features.
Colours are slightly faded on the DVD transfer of The Man In The Glass Booth. The colours have a green hue which gives the film a washed-out appearance. The image is very soft, with not a great deal of detail. Backgrounds often look somewhat fuzzy. The film has the overall appearance of an NTSC converted early 70’s television show like Kojak or a Columbo TV movie. There are however little in the way of marks or scratches, so it’s a fairly clean if dull image overall.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is not the clearest. The sound is dull and flat and words are often mumbled, rendering them sometimes inaudible. There are moreover no subtitles to aid comprehension. Generally though the audio is at least adequate and most of the dialogue is reasonably clear.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the main feature or on the extra material.
Interview with Arthur Hiller (22:46)
Describing the play as an “intellectual thriller”, Hiller explains how the play was re-written for the screen by AFT script-editor Edward Anhalt in order to give it more emotional charge. He talks about Shaw’s dislike of the screenplay and his decision to remove his name from anywhere on the credits, but claims that Shaw changed his mind when he saw the finished film.
Interview with Richard Peña (20:42)
This is the same interview that is included on The Homecoming DVD. The director of the New York Film Festival and Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Centre presents a fine overview of the whole American Film Theatre project, enumerating its attributes and identifying particularly outstanding performances.
AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), Butley (2:53), The Homecoming (2:29), and the next releases in the series, The Ice Man Cometh (2:37), Rhinoceros (1:50), Three Sisters (2:41), The Maids (2:57), Luther (2:28) and Lost In The Stars (2:05).
The programme notes for the film’s presentation contain A Note From Arthur Hiller, where the director talks about what goes into making a film and some thoughts about The Man In The Glass Booth. On The Trial Of Adolf Eichmann, the historical model for Adolf Dorff, contains an account of his trial in Jerusalem.
Stills Gallery and Posters
The stills gallery contains 11 black& white and colour images. There are 2 posters for the film.
“Robert Shaw and The Man In The Glass Booth”, by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, describes Shaw’s career as an actor and novelist and how he came to adapt the novel of The Man In The Glass Booth to a play on the advice of Harold Pinter.
A filmed message from producer Ely Landau (6:13)
A thank you to subscribers at the end of the first season of films, the producer reflects on the ideal of the AFTs aim to preserve theatre on screen and takes a look over what films had been made so far.
Daring perhaps for its time, The Man In The Glass Booth does bring a level of complexity to the question of the Holocaust, those who perpetrated it and those who survived it, but it relies too often on the shock value and the glibness of its pronouncements. Schell’s performance is so over the top is it either brilliant or appalling (I’d go for the latter myself) and Arthur Hiller’s treatment does the drama no favours whatsoever, abandoning the principles of the AFT by re-writing the play for the screen without the author’s consent. The DVD transfer is only of average quality, thought the extras are of the usual high standard. There are some interesting points in the drama, but they are poorly presented, making The Man In The Glass Booth one of the weaker entries in the otherwise impressive American Film Theatre DVD Collection.