Judgment in Berlin Review

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A group of Eastern Germans escape into the West using a hijacked plane, but are forced to face court proceedings for their actions. Martin Sheen is the unshakable judge while Sam Wanamaker pleads the case for the defence.


Taken from a real American judge's account of an unprecedented legal action in the late '70s, Judgment In Berlin is fascinating stuff if you're at all interested in international law, or simply want to appreciate the spectacle of Martin Sheen and Sam Wanamaker — as judge and defence attorney — playing articulate, learned, impassioned, justice-seeking windbags.

The situation develops out of a dramatic escape from East Berlin to West on a hijacked Polish plane. While Western sympathies theoretically rest with the freedom seekers, international treaties call for all skyjacking to be vigorously punished. The case of the East Berliners thus becomes a hot potato tossed between U.S., West German, East German, Polish and Soviet authorities.

Sheen, watchable as ever as the Spencer Tracy-type judge brought in to hear the case, presides over a courtroom packed with clashing political interests, a phalanx of ambitious lawyers showing off, and a multinational cast with more impenetrable accents than brought down the Tower of Babel.

Even Sean Penn, son of director/co-writer Leo, grows his own accent for a good, tearful turn on the stand as a frightened East German witness, while the real Europeans in the cast are effective, if a touch shaky on the enunciation front.

Gathering nicely in momentum to a fine, emotional climax, this is hugely enjoyable for lovers of wordy, real-life drama, although most people will be content to catch it on television, the medium in which (Leo) Penn is most effectively at home.

Solidly acted and with a feel for courtroom authenticity, Penn does justice to an overlooked true story.