Thursday, 4 September 2008

God on Trial

If you missed it last night, thank God for BBC iPlayer, on which you can watch it for the next seven days:

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s God on Trial is BBC drama at its best. Based on the (probably apocryphal) story of how, in the face of the Nazis and the holocaust, a group of Auschwitz prisoners charged and tried God with breaking his covenant with the Jewish people, it made potent, prime-time (straight after the watershed) viewing. It’s doubtful whether any other broadcaster would have given it such a slot – and none, of course, would have shown it without advertising breaks, those destroyers of dramatic faith.

Cottrell Boyce’s previous work includes the screenplay to Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People, featuring Steve Coogan as Factory Records founder Tony Wilson – which is about as different from Auschwitz as you can get but one of my favourite British films of recent years. The cast of God on Trial includes Antony Sher, Rupert Graves and Jack Shepherd, and everyone else matches their high standards.

I’d have been a poor juror hearing the case against God in that Auschwitz blockhouse, my mind made up before hearing the arguments. To paraphrase one prisoner, either God is not all-powerful, or he would prevent this happening, or he is not just, for only then could he tolerate it. And what is the point of a God who is not both all-powerful and just?

But it is a tribute to both the writer and the actors that even I felt myself being swayed by the defence (something that didn’t happen to me, incidentally, in The Trial of Judas Iscariot, at the Almeida Theatre earlier this year, when the deistic sympathies of the author produced a wet and distant Jesus who had me rooting for a fucked-up Judas with all my heart and soul). Not least among these arguments was the view that since the Nazis had succeeded in stripping the prisoners of everything else, they should not permit them to strip them of their God as well.

I won’t tell you the prisoners’ verdict, but that’s not really the point of the play – you reach your own anyway. And whichever way you judge it, it’s a far easier call in the comfort of your living room than ever it was for those tortured souls in Auschwitz.

(Frank Cottrell Boyce is a Catholic. He writes about his faith and the making of God on Trial here - but note that he mentions the verdict in the first paragraph.)


andyf said...

I was hoping to like this drama, but felt it failed. I have to say it was "over-acted" and too postured generally.
In terms of the dialogue, it did not seem to occur to anyone that their was a simple explanation for their situation; that there is no God...and that their suffering had no meaning, no purpose, and they were simply in the grip of a madman. That revelation would fit all the facts

Steve Platt said...

I thought the French physicist Jacques (Francois Guetary) made a compelling rationalist case against the existence of a God of the Jews (why would such a God create 100,000 million stars in our solar system alone, and then choose just one group on one planet circling one of those stars as his 'chosen people'?). And Akiba (Antony Sher) may have been a rabbi but his explosive denunciation of the God of scripture at the culmination of the play is all the more powerful as a rejection of faith because of where it comes from.

I agree it was postured, but if it was to work at all, given the setting, it had to be.

Red Squirrel said...

I have now watched this drama twice and find it totally fascinating. Apart from the typical Deist arguments such as if God is good or bad, or just indifferent to Mankind, it also gave some impacting illustrations on other philosophical subjects such as choice and will power. Although it was based on the Jewish faith, I doubt that any Christian cannot relate to the arguments under debate, for our own religion is based on the same origin. How many times have we asked "Why has God done this to me? or assumed a submissive attitude in the face of adversity, claiming it is a just punishment for our sins.
I would dearly like to obtain the script and go through it with a fine tooth-comb for there is much there that one must miss, in spite of the thoughtful pauses that occur during the trial.
I disagree with andyf when he says that there is no God. I think that the end showed how much the Human Being is in need of spiritual consolation in the face of adversity. It is also demonstrated by Shapiro who found solace in believing that his mother had been sacrificed for the Jewish faith. To categorically deny the existence of God is to take the part of the accusers of God in the film. It would not fit all the facts. I think this is demonstrated when they ponder the possible reason for this slaughter and it is suggested that they may, as a result, come to live in their own land - which did, indeed, come to pass with the formation of Israel.
As far as I am concerned, it is 'Hats off'to Frank Cottrell Boyce.

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