Last night I went to a screening of God on Trial to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The film is set in Auschwitz during World War II and is about a group of prisoners who decide to hold a trial against God for breaking his covenant with the Jewish people by allowing the genocide to take place.
The screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, was present at the event and answered questions from the audience about his inspiration for the film.
He had heard the story of the trial as a young man and it stuck with him. “I was just a bit daft about it really,” he said, explaining that he was moved by the fact that the story ended on a note of hope. His own faith, however, made him doubt if he was qualified write the screenplay. “I’m a Catholic. Should I be writing about a Jewish subject? It seemed quite blasphemous to have a trial of God.” He spoke to a Rabbi about it who told him that in Judaism there is a “very strong tradition of wrangling with God.” This convinced Cottrell Boyce to go ahead with the project.
He knew that for the story to work, God had to be found guilty. Cottrell Boyce asked the Rabbi for a list of arguments that might be used to make a case against God, then he sat down and read the Old Testament. “It’s a tough read. It’s a remnant of a brutal age. It’s hard to reconcile that with anything you want to believe, really.”
This research, as well interviews he had done with Holocaust survivors, provided Cottrell Boyce with the material he needed to write the screenplay. “It troubled me a lot writing this film. One of the things that held me together was talking to the people who had been there and still had their faith intact.”
When it came to rehearsing the script, Cottrell Boyce realised that his first draft focused too much on intellectual arguments. “I had to give the actors something to hold on to. The answer is not intellectual. It’s about your relationship with God.” He introduced a more human element to the story, allowing the characters to talk about their experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
One of the questions raised in the film is about the nature of goodness. Why do good people suffer? What makes a person ‘good’?
“We do get very hung up on the question of evil. I get evil. It’s just part of the evolutionary process really. Goodness is inexplicable. There should be more questions about goodness.”
Cottrell Boyce believes that the film is relevant even now, 65 years after the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, because “the Holocaust is not unprecedented and it is not alone.” He cited conflicts in Northern Ireland and Iraq as examples of atrocities happening in our own lifetime. When asked what had changed for him personally as a result of writing the film, Cottrell Boyce said that praying for him is no longer about saying please and thank you. Now he is asking ‘why?’ and “that is a fantastic gift.”