Minnesota author’s book is being shot for star studded film adaptation ‘Nuremberg’

jack_el-hai_book jacket
“The Nazi and the Psychiatrist,” by Minnesota historian Jack El-Hai.
Courtesy photo | 2013

This month, Minnesota historian Jack El-Hai is seeing a book he published more than ten years ago turned into a Hollywood film and a stage play. His book “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist” tells the story of a young army doctor whose job was to evaluate top-ranking Nazi officials — and decide whether they were fit to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Author Jack El-Hai is in Budapest to observe filming of the movie Nuremberg, which is based on the book. Its cast includes Rami Malek, Russel Crowe and Colin Hanks, the eldest son of Tom Hanks. Jack El-Hai joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: This month, Minnesota historian, Jack El-Hai is seeing a book he published more than 10 years ago turned into a Hollywood film and a stage play. His book, The Nazi and the Psychiatrist tells the story of a young army doctor whose job was to evaluate top-ranking Nazi officials and decide whether they were fit to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Author, Jack El-Hai, is in Budapest right now to observe filming of the movie Nuremberg, which is based on his book. Its cast includes, Russell Crowe and Colin Hanks, the eldest son of Tom Hanks. Jack El-Hai joins us right now. Budapest, wow. You live the life, Jack. How are you?

JACK EL-HAI: I'm fine, Cathy. And it's good to talk with you.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. So what's it like watching filming?

JACK EL-HAI: Well, on one hand, it's eerie. It's a peculiar feeling to see scenes appear on the screen that I wrote in my book some years ago. And it's thrilling too at the same time to see all of that. And also, I have to say, it's satisfying to see somebody else's take on the story. And that somebody else is the screenwriter, and the director of Nuremberg, James Vanderbilt, who has added his own perspective and emphasis on different parts of the story.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you're comfortable with somebody else taking your story? Do you have any input into what your-- what some of the shots might be, or some of the characters, or dialogue at all? Are you just kind of out of the picture at this point?

JACK EL-HAI: Not quite out of the picture. But I've been mainly an observer here. But in the past, I have served as a consultant of sorts on the film. I reviewed early drafts of the screenplay and made suggestions, some of which were taken, and have looked at the most recent draft of the screenplay, and have also more recently been talking with some members of the cast about their characters and how they interpret them.

CATHY WURZER: Let's talk about the characters. Really, it's a fascinating book. You did a great job on it. It's around after World War II ends, for folks who are not familiar. And it's before the start of the Nuremberg Trials. And this is focusing on the meetings between a psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas Kelley, and Hitler's deputy, Hermann Goering, just prior to the war crimes trials. And gosh, those meetings offered a fascinating look into the mind of one of history's most infamous criminals, right? I mean, what was this relationship like?

JACK EL-HAI: Well, first of all, Kelley was a-- Dr. Kelley, the psychiatrist, was in a very privileged position. This was a place where every psychiatrist on Earth at the time wanted to be, to examine these men who were being held for war crimes, because they were the most notorious criminals alive at that time. And things got very intense.

Dr. Kelley spent time with and interviewed, and examined all of the 22 who were being held for trial in that first Nuremberg case. But he spent an extra amount of time with Hermann Goering, because Goering was the top ranking defendant, and also because Goering was the most inexplicable, and intriguing, and intelligent. And what Kelley was trying to figure out was whether there was a common element to their psyches, or as Kelly put it, whether there was a Nazi virus that had infected all of them and caused them to commit their heinous acts. And so a lot of the story of both the book and the movie is Kelley's journey to find out whether that was the case, and how it affected him when he found the answer.

CATHY WURZER: It seems though that both men developed a relationship. They were friendly. It seemed that Dr. Kelley found Hermann Goering really quite fascinating. And he kind of seemed like he liked him. Was that a bit unusual?

JACK EL-HAI: Well, Kelley was well aware of the dangerous aspects of Goering's personality, and well aware of what he had done while he was in office in the Nazi regime. But Kelley also found Goering intriguing. And they mutually admired each other in a way, because they were very similar.

They were both master manipulators. And they were both very adept at getting what they wanted from other people. And I've often referred to this match-up between Goering and Kelley as King Kong versus Godzilla, because they were both powerful, dominant, and highly intelligent people.

CATHY WURZER: Really, a very interesting dynamic that played out between those two. Do you-- getting back to the other part of this project, so there's the film and now there's a play based on the book premiering next week in California. My goodness. How does its focus differ from the films?

JACK EL-HAI: The play on the stage, there is an opportunity to look at things very closely. And so the play, which is called Sense of Decency, and it's premiering at the North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, California, it's really a-- it focuses on Kelley and on his relationship with his wife, Dukie, and how he was affected by the time that he spent with Goring, and what he came away with from his time with Goring.

So it's a very narrow, laser focus on that aspect of the story. The movie is more of a higher up look at all of the conflicts that were taking place in that Nuremberg prison during those months leading up to the trial and during the trial. And it's a great deal of it is about Goering, who's played by Russell Crowe. A great deal of it is about Doctor Kelley, played by Rami Malek. And it's more of an encyclopedia, encyclopedic kind of story.

CATHY WURZER: I was trying to remember, Jack, when you and I talked about the book when it was first released, which was I think that was more than 10 years ago. And it's been published in what, 10 languages since that time. I mean, it's quite extraordinary in terms of its success. And I'm trying to remember what you told me. How in the world did you stumble on this story between Goering and Doctor Kelley?

JACK EL-HAI: It was little known. But you might remember, Cathy, that I previously published a book called The Lobotomist.


JACK EL-HAI: And that was about another psychiatrist. But as it turns out, that lobotomy psychiatrist knew Doctor Kelley. They had met at a psychiatric conferences in the 1930's. And had-- when I was researching the lobotomist, I came across a little bit about Dr. Kelley and his time in Nuremberg.

So a few years later, I followed up on that. And I searched for somebody who would know something about this Doctor Kelley, and tracked down his oldest child, his son, also named Douglas. And I asked Doug, do you have anything relating to your father's career and his time in Nuremberg? And Doug said, yeah, I have some things. And he invited me to come visit him in California, which I did, expecting to find maybe a file folder, or a scrapbook, or a photo album, something like that.

And found that Doug had 15 banker's boxes full of his father's stuff, including medical records of the Nazis that he examined, and artifacts from that time in Nuremberg, including the drug-- a bottle full of the tablets that Goering was addicted to when he arrived at the prison. And it all took off from there. I realized quickly that this material alone could be the basis of a book about Kelley and his work in Nuremberg.

CATHY WURZER: It's amazing. The book was successful, not a bestseller, I believe. But you know, it's getting this amazing attention, which is great at this point.

JACK EL-HAI: Well, thank you. You're right. It wasn't a bestseller, and it didn't receive a particularly large amount of attention in the press either. It did sell well in some of those European translations.

But I think this-- filmmakers were drawn to it because of the conflict, and both the attraction and the conflict between the two men. And that seemed like a cinematic kind of story. Plus, the setting in the Nuremberg prison and during the trial is something that a lot of people are very interested in.

CATHY WURZER: Well. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, obviously. Enjoy budapest in the filming. Thank you, Jack.

JACK EL-HAI: Thank you, Cathy. I'll tell you more later.

CATHY WURZER: All right. I look forward to it. Jack El-Hai is the Minnesota based author of the book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, among other books. And of course, that one is being turned into a movie called Nuremberg, as you heard. The play is based on the book, A Sense of Decency. It premieres in San Francisco-- excuse me-- San Diego next Wednesday.

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