Maximilian Schell won an Oscar from his first nomination for portraying defense lawyer Hans Rolfe in Judgment At Nuremberg.
Another reason though that helped him win is although his role is supporting, it is a very showy performance with still a good amount of screen time. Hans Rolfe is a very passionate lawyer who fights to find the accused judge Ernest Janning (Burt Lancaster) innocent on the charges of crimes committed against humanity due his work for the Nazis. Rolfe basis his case that they were just acting within the law of their country, therefore did not do something technically wrong.
Rolfe to illustrate his points make many passionate speeches before the court. Schell excels in all these moments and does realize the want for German respect for Rolfe very well. His speeches are thrilling because Schell infuses them with great command and energy. Schell is very charismatic in his performance and does control the screen whenever he is speaking. It could be easy for the viewer to shrug off all of his points that make excuses for horrendous crimes of the Nazis, but Schell does avoid this because he just simply states Rolfe's views exceedingly well.
Now does that mean I was convinced by his points, no, but Schell performance allows for a thoughtful discussion because of his earnest portrayal as Rolfe. Now Rolfe has many scenes where he must show how someone was "justly" convicted because they did fit into guilt of Nazi laws. If these scenes he breaks apart the witnesses of the Nazis, or victims of them. Schell is exceptional again , in his cold demeanor, and it is realistic in his calculative method of finding what he wants. Now although Schell is terrific in these moments, I must say they are a bit of plot contrivance because frankly do not believe the Tribunal would let them go on, especially in the scene where Rolfe verbally attack the victim played by Judy Garland, badgering the witness anyone? I mention this though because if Schell was not nearly as strong they could have been terrible frankly, but I still will say even with Schell they are not entirely believable.
Schell performance has a lot of yelling, which I will say does fit for Rolfe, because he has to get his point across, but it is mostly an external performance. The viewer actually only finds out a little of who Hans Rolfe really is. Now much what is written about this character today calls him a Nazi lawyer. That could be correct by the way he treats Montgomery Clift's and Garland's characters but from the other little mentioned about him is that he just is young German lawyer who wants to savor a little respect for his people.
It is hard to say Schell is given few scenes that show the true nature of his character. He is given total three scenes outside the courtroom. Two he speaks to Lancaster's character and shows his respect for him, and claims he did not like doing what he had to do in the courtroom. Schell is given little dialogue, and I really find he more of suggests with this for the German respect side of this character's interpretation. I think one other scene actually in court further supports this side, and that is his face when he must react to the concentration camp footage. Schell does show quite well show that Rolfe really was very emotionally affected by the footage. I think does more of support him as just the young lawyer seeking for some respect. This should be mentioned because Schell is able to suggest this aspect of his character with little to no material.
Schell gives a good performance, that effectively makes the courtroom scenes interesting and far more effective than they probably would have been without him. Still though his role is a little too limited, and much of his performance is repetitive, articulate effective repetition, but repetition nonetheless. That is fine though since it is a supporting performance, and his character does not need to be anything more than it is. As is his performance is a strong supporting performance, probably the second strongest in the film, but still his performance always remains for me quite good instead of quite great.