In March 2020, with lockdown imminent, an old friend called Laurie Berg rang me to ask if I would read a synopsis for a religious film or perhaps novel. Knowing I was raised a Catholic, he wanted my perspective on A Conflict of Faith, a story that has some parallels with Schindler’s List.
But Schindler’s List was directed by Steven Spielberg who can make any fim he wants. What are the chances of getting a religious-themed film made today if you are not an Oscar-winning director ?
The story opens in Dachau concentration camp in 1943. Hans is a devout Catholic German lieutenant – and member of the Nazi party – working as an accountant in Dachau. He risks his life by giving food to the starving Jewish inmates and saves a Jewish baby girl from certain death by smuggling her out of this hell on earth. With the help of his local priest and a Mother Superior, Hans and his wife adopt the girl and bring her up in the Catholic faith.
Then we switch to post-war Munich in 1961, when Hans and his wife are mysteriously killed in a car accident. Their adopted daughter Anna, now 18 years old, discovers her true birth religion and with help from the office of Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna, tries to trace her real mother – if she is still alive. Meanwhile, Anna is being pursued by her uncle, who is a wanted war criminal. He is determined to get rid of Anna and take over the family business.
Anna finally finds her mother alive on the other side of the world. She also falls in love with a young Jewish man and they marry. At their wedding ceremony, she praises her late brave German officer father and mother and thanks the Roman Catholic Church for saving her life even though she knows she was born a Jew: “I will not renounce the Catholic Faith, but embrace it even more.”
The story was intriguing. Could a Nazi officer truly have compassion? He was backed into a moral and religious corner. His instinct was to save an innocent child; it was also a chance for him and his wife to start the family they always wanted. I asked myself – what if it was me? With lockdown looming and a period of home incarceration, I agreed to have a go at the screenplay.
Watching archive film and reading first-hand accounts of life in the camp was harrowing. It also educated me as it was not only Jewish people who were incarcerated. As well as domestic and foreign political prisoners, there was a part of the camp that housed Catholic priests. These were mainly from Poland and Germany, whose only “crime” was to denounce the Nazi regime publicly. It is estimated that around 1,000 priests died at Dachau by mistreatment or murder.
After the first draft, we needed a professional opinion on the script. Laurie’s brother-in-law had been friends since childhood with Steven Berkoff, the actor, playwright and theatre director. Steven liked it and agreed to rewrite the original script as co-writer. Over the second lockdown, we started working together, albeit remotely, communicating by phone and email. Steven elevated the script to a higher level.
We wanted to show that the main protagonist Hans, although an SS officer, had not lost his Catholic instincts and is fundamentally a good man. He, like many others, was swept up in the hysteria of German nationalism in the mid-1930s. In private he finds solace in prayer at his local church and follows the guidance of his priest to do acts of kindness whenever he can. He helps the clergymen of the camp by smuggling in the Holy Eucharist so the priests can celebrate Mass in secret. On the other hand, his older brother Karl is fighting on the eastern front and has become a fanatical Nazi.
Anna is the innocent party in this saga. As a baby in Dachau, her chances of survival were practically nil. Against all odds she is rescued and avoids an early death. She is brought up by the affluent Hans and his wife Edith in post-war Munich, educated and raised in a loving Catholic environment. A bombshell moment happens shortly after her 18th birthday. Her parents are killed in a suspicious car accident, but I won’t do a plot spoiler.
After the fifth draft, we felt it was ready to go out to producers and agents. But selling a film with a religious theme is not easy. “Religious content doesn’t sell,” they said, forgetting the success of Martin Scorsese’s Silence and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Berkoff then passed the work to Stephen Cookson, an independent producer and film director, along with his partner Peter Keegan (CK Films), with whom Berkoff worked on an Edgar Allan Poe story adaptation. To date, they have raised 40 per cent of the budget. Any investors out there who think it is time to revive the religious film genre can approach CK Films through ckfilmsltd.co.uk.
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