‘Judgement in Berlin‘ is the final film directed by Leo Penn. It was released in 1988 and distributed by New Line Cinema. It was written by Leo Penn and producer Joshua Sinclair, based on a book of the same by Herbert J. Stern.
Federal judge Herbert J Stern (Martin Sheen) is called to West Berlin in 1978 to preside over the case of Helmut Thiele (Heinz Hoenig) and Sigrid Radke (Jutta Speidel), who are accused of hijacking a plane from Poland in order to escape from Soviet-controlled East Germany. Their defense attorneys Bernard Hellring (Sam Wanamaker) and Judah Best (Max Gail) is trying to argue that Sigrid is innocent and her confession was forced by the prosecution Alan Sherman (Joshua Sinclair) and Edwin Palmer (Carl Lumbly). The case has a growing interest in West Germany, especially among Guenther (Sean Penn), one of the passengers who was freed when Helmut took the plane hostage.
Upon watching the film, I was surprised to find that this was a true story and even more surprised to find out that the US state prosecutors also tried to deny the accused their legal rights once the trial began. It is shocking and the film does an excellent job of recreating those circumstances, though they took several liberties, including renaming some of the parties involved for their protection.
As Cold War dramas go, it does a good job of ratcheting up the intensity of the hostage situation and later with the trial. It was a desperate act by people wanting to be free, but also must face the consequences of those actions. I felt like the film had a good grasp of this and relates the story very well.
Martin Sheen is the breakout performance in this movie. He portrays the judge very well and you can feel his frustration at the red tape. The Soviets are putting pressure on the court to find the accused guilty in order to discourage escape. However, he wants to do right by the defendants and give them a fair trial. It also touches on the fact that he is Jewish and had relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust, putting him under pressure with some in his family. Through all of this, he moves forward through the trial in order to bring justice.
The rest of the cast does a good job as well. A young Sean Penn appears as one of the witnesses and though his role is small, his performance is felt in a strong way. Jutta Speidel as Sigrid was spot on. She portrayed a woman pulled in all directions but brings it to fruition. Max Volkert Martens also has a small role as Hans Schuster, who was originally supposed to help Sigrid and Helmut escape, but his detainment by Soviet authorities forced their hand. His role is also, but it is significant.
The plot is also intriguing and it keeps the movie going at a smooth pace. Albeit, it does have that eighties-style of filmmaking with the elongated panorama shots and melodramatic music, making it feel dated. However, it adequately showed the dangers of living under Soviet tyranny while also the consequences of escape. From beginning to end, you are intrigued by the events of the movie and even more surprised that it is a true court case. It holds together very well and keeps you hooked.
PARENTAL CONCERNS: Thematic elements, Minor violence, Foul language
FAVORITE QUOTE: You want me to bury these people to make up for all of our graveless relatives? Let me tell you something, my sole responsibility here is to uphold my oath to the Constitution and not to any government policies or causes.
Check out the trailer below:
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