God On Trial

Last night BBC2 screened God on Trial, a new TV play by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It is the story of a group of Auschwitz prisoners who hold a rabbinical court to accuse God of breaking the covenant and abandoning the Jewish people. It could easily have been sensationalist, but in the hands of Boyce the arguments for both sides were compelling, and I never felt like I was being manipulated as a viewer. The beauty is that although the court does make a decision, the real conclusion is the personal reaction of the viewers.

In a barrack in Auschwitz concentration camp, the prisoners are called for a medical inspection. They do not know the criteria by which they will be judged, but those that fail the inspection will be killed to make room for new arrivals. However, the new arrivals are a day early thanks to the increased efficiency of the German railway system. Those waiting to die are faced by the people that will sleep in their beds the next night. Under these horrific circumstances, one man suggests they prosecute God for the abandonment of the Jewish people. Three judges are chosen, all rabbis, and the cases for both sides are presented.

God on Trial relies wholly on the power of words. None of the horrific events of the Holocaust are recreated for the screen, for which I am grateful. To actually show the violence and the degredation would be distasteful and manipulative, and would detract from the power of imagination. Instead the atrocities are described, given as evidence in the trial. Stories of Torahs burned, of fathers forced to choose which of his three sons to save, of entire families murdered and their bodies desecrated. The defence is presented in stories of previous times of hardship and oppression, through which Judaism survived. Rabbi Akiba (Antony Sher) however delivers one final blow for the prosecution, recounting Biblical tales of an unjust and vengeful God, a God that demanded bloodshed and sacrifice. As the Nazis killed even children, so God punished David by taking his child. He states that “God is not good”, and the court finds God guilty.

The scenes of the rabbinical court are juxtaposed with images of modern tourists visiting the site of Auschwitz. The contrast is demonstrated particularly effectively by one scene towards the end. As the prisoners stand naked in the gas chambers, awaiting their deaths, the tourists stand on that same site some sixty years later. The two disparate groups are then shown standing side by side in the chamber, the visitors in coats and hats, the prisoners naked and malnourished. Together they join in prayer, demonstrating that the faith has indeed prevailed despite the verdict.

The drama was deeply moving, the personal struggles were reflected in the universal themes and vice versa. I watched the whole play as though I had a boulder on my chest, yet it wasn’t as affecting for me as it could be for those with faith. I flirted with church as a confused teenager, but in my heart I never really believed in God, and never felt like I had a people. Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote for the Guardian about his own crisis of faith whilst scripting God on Trial, ultimately finding that it renewed his faith rather than damaged it, descibing it with the metaphor “a great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one.” By that token, I have no fire at all, so for me it is just weather.

4 Responses to “God On Trial”

  1. Interesting, interesting. I can’t comment on God on Trial itself, not having seen it. But I’m intrigued.

    “I never felt like I was being manipulated as a viewer”, you write. This line in particular caught my eye …

    Do you think the best art does not manipulate?

  2. That is an interesting question, I hadn’t fully pondered that before, thanks. Here’s what I dun thunk:

    All art is manipulative by its very nature, especially film. It’s put together to gain a reaction from the audience, and often the artist has a specific reaction in mind, especially in film. However, I feel like that old cliché about acting; it’s best when you don’t notice it.

    For example, Hitchcock films deliberately aim to make the audience feel tense, then ease that tension, then wrack it up again. Hitchcock himself said he wanted to play his audience like a piano, but he gets away with it by giving the audience only as much information as the protagonist (in Rear Window, the camera even sleeps when James Stewart sleeps), so you feel like you’re in the same boat as them, feeling what they feel and not just what Hitchcock wants you to feel.

    A film like Crash (2004) was deeply manipulative, I went along with it while I watched but felt angry and almost violated later on. There was something cynical about the way it was manipulative, giving you really clunky examples of people not being what they seemed, “ooh the racist saved a black from a burning car”, like they were jabbing you in the ribs all the time going “see, SEE?” There was something unsavoury about the whole thing even if it was just as manipulative as Hitchcock ever was. It too played me like a piano, but it just played Three Blind Mice on me, with the emphasis heavily on blind.

    God On Trial allowed the viewer to come to their own conclusions about God, even though you hear the verdict delivered by the court. Were they right? Were they wrong? Is there even a God? It didn’t dictate that to you, which made it more than a specialist piece of preaching. I did say in my review that it would be easier to appreciate for someone of faith, but it was still fascinating and engrossing viewing for an atheist.

  3. […] friend Tom, after reading my review of God On Trial, asked me if I thought art was best if it wasn’t manipulative. I had never really thought […]

  4. Ach, in order to engage with this fully, I need to have a far greater cinematic awareness. I haven’t even seen Crash, y’know …

    But that was a very good point you made with ’emphasis heavily on blind’ (well made, too).

    I guess it’s almost like this. Hitchcock was (perhaps?) consistent and confident in his manipulation. Whoever directed Crash was not. Confidence is a big part of it, I increasingly believe. The confidence not to resort to the ‘see? SEE?’ contrivances, but to trust that your art is good enough to make its points despite all the messiness, ambiguity, asymmetry &c of *realism*. That any patterns or themes you might be sketching out are never going to be anything more than sketches.

    And that neat demonstrations or vindications don’t really happen, in life.

    People are complex and self-contradictory. They say one thing one moment, another the next. So why should a film be so pat, so glib in the points it makes?

    Walt Whitman put this whole thing into words:

    “Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

    Damn right.

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