God on Trial: Movie Analysis and Review
The Holocaust of World War II spawned many tragedies, one of which was the crisis of faith it precipitated amongst European Jews. The film God on Trial depicts the inhabitants of a concentration camp literally putting God on trial for his crimes against humanity as they wait to be “sorted out” into groups of who will live and who will die at Auschwitz. The film begins set in the present, where various tourists to the concentration camp are shown gawking at the premises. They can hardly believe the horror was once real and then slowly, there is a shift as the camera pans away to reveal a change of time and the viewer is taken back to World War II. The event is based upon an apocryphal incident in which the residents of Auschwitz were said to have staged such a mock court, although there is no record of whether God won or not.
One prisoner assumes the role of prosecutor while others try to defend the Supreme Being. A formal court is set up by Baumgarten, a law professor who says he knows nothing of the Torah but knows how to set up a trial. It is suggested that God has breached his contract with the Jewish people — at Masada, through the persecutions of Europe, and now in Auschwitz. The defenders of God state that this is a test of the faith of the inhabitants. But this raises the question: “Why, if God has betrayed us, why?” The prisoner Mordechai assumes the role of the most vociferous questioner.
The residents of the camp face perhaps the ultimate challenge to God’s goodness. How can they, when confronted with supreme evil, still believe in God? And yet they are also being persecuted, in part, by virtue of their belief system (or the belief system of their ancestors). For some, the very fact that they are in the camp unjustly, steeling themselves to face the ultimate evil, is evident of God’s absence — or his betrayal. Others believe that the Jewish people need God more than ever.
The Jews who defend God argue that it is because of the limits of human perceptions that God is still good. Although they may not be experiencing his goodness in the here and now, he is still there, whether they know it or not. God may have a plan about which we are unaware and simply because we suffer as individuals does not make God wrong or unjust. Other prisoners, however, scoff at this notion, stating that no larger good could justify their current plight. All they can see is the fear and death before them. “A healer? Then he will have his luck cut out for him?” says one man when he sees someone praying. While some of the Jews treat the rabbi in their presence with reverence and respect, calling him a living embodiment of the Torah others sneer at this idea altogether and rather proudly proclaim themselves to be bad Jews given the extent to which they feel that the absence of God is palpable within the context of the camps.
Although the question of how God can be in a world with such evils as the Holocaust has plagued all religions to some extent, because the Jews have so often faced persecution as a people, certain uniquely “Jewish” aspects of the debate occasionally arise. For example, some inhabitants of the camp argue that God may exist but that God is not fundamentally good: God has helped the Jewish people in the past but is not choosing to do so now: just as he abandoned the Jews in the Bible at times. Others point out the suffering Jews have endured at the hands of gentiles over the ages — where was God then?
For others at the trial, to be a good Jew is enough of a reward of the “test to which they have submitted themselves” while for others this urging is a mockery of the contract made at Sinai. “God is just, so we must have done something wrong,” claims one defender of God, but this flies in the face of proportionality of punishment. Also, why punish a good Jew — or a child — rather than the sinful Hitler? Why can he not “purify” his people without destroying them? If God is all powerful then God should realize his greater plan without doing such evil.
The “answer” to this is, according to the debate, free will. Without a world where there is evil, than there is no free will. In response to this charge, the prisoner Lieble is asked to tell the story of his three sons. An SS guard forced him to make a choice between his three children: which would live and which would die. Yet despite this fact, he can only shrug his shoulders and say, “have I ever given orders to the morning or sent the dawn to its post?” In other words, human beings are powerful in the face of divine mystery. “I don’t want free will, I want my sons,” he says. But he says that he believes that God’s presence is manifest even in the camps because he still senses God’s presence. Other prisoners point out that God gave his free will to the Nazis who have everything and a more useful God would eradicate their enemies rather than suffer in sympathy, as God is supposedly won’t to do.
The prosecutor of God Mordechai points out: “We are not being martyred for the Torah but for our race, because of our ancestry.” God is not being satisfied, in other words, by any higher principle, but rather this concerns a dispute amongst men, by men. There is no evidence of any religious principle at stake, only how human beings can act in cruel ways to one another. The Nazis do not really view the persecution in a religious fashion, they merely believe that hey are “purifying” their land of people whom they call inferior for political purposes.
Eventually, at the very end of the film, the rabbi leads the men in a kind of service, going over the words of the Torah. “Who punishes a child? God does. Now, did the child die suddenly, mercifully, without pain? . . . Seven days . . . seven days that child spent dying in pain . . . The people of Egypt, the people of Amalek, what was it like when Adonai turned against them? It was like this . . . . We have become the Moabites. We are learning how it was for the Amalekites . . . . What did they learn? That Adonai, our God, is not good . . . . He was not ever good. He was only on our side.” In other words, when the Egyptian first-born were killed, this was not necessarily a “good” act, merely an act of God’s will that is just as mysterious to understand as any other action on earth.
The film brings to mind what is often called Pascal’s wager, or the question of whether one should believe in God or not based upon his rationalization in relation to the costs of belief vs. The benefits. Pascal claimed that it was more logical to believe in God than not, given that if one were wrong, one has lost nothing, yet if one is right, one has “won” heaven. However, the men in the film do not believe that belief in God will necessarily bring them better fortune — it will certainly not make them more apt to survive than not survive. Also, there is the question of whether even if God does exist, the end reward might not be sufficient given all the suffering he has forced them to endure.
Even the men who claim to still believe in God do so largely because they simply believe they have no other alternative. Their rationalization parallels of the rationalization of Job, when attempting to interpret his suffering. Job says that since he did not create the world and cannot stand up to the works of the Almighty, then he has no choice to submit. Their belief in God and sense of something larger than themselves is so instinctive that they have no choice to assume there is something larger and greater in the world than the sphere of knowledge immediately outside themselves.
However, although the rabbi ultimately silences the men before the drama draws to its sad and dreadful conclusion, the question of whether God exists has not really been answered, nor, of course, can it be. Based upon the drama that unfolds, it could be reflected that belief in the existence of God seems more of a psychological and cultural choice than something based in logic. Some of the men are understandably embittered and paralyzed by fear such as Mordechai so it is only natural that they do not believe in God, as an extension of this personality trait. Others have built their entire belief structure around a belief in the Almighty and to give it away when they are at their lowest seems inconceivable, even though they cannot perceive a larger plan to justify their suffering.
In fact, it could be argued that when confronted with terrible suffering and the destruction of one’s family (and one’s self), the idea that it means nothing is so awful that believing in God is a far more attractive alternative, even if this also means that God is doing nothing to alleviate this suffering. If God is not all-powerful he is not God although opponents would say that if he does not use that power to stop what is transpiring than he cannot be good. However, for people like the rabbi, to deny God means to deny himself. The rabbi is said to be a living Torah, a living embodiment of prayer. If his religion is invalid than in his eyes, no doubt, he has lost the sense that his entire life had meaning, not just his death. For those not nearly as emotionally invested in the existence of God, however, they are more willing to express anger and call God a murderer or to doubt the existence of God at all.
Even the rabbi is forced to conclude that God is not “good” in the sense that we think of human beings as good, given what he has done in the past, according to the words of the Bible. God has a different standard of morality very different than the standard to which he holds human beings. This is a variation on the initial argument that God has a larger plan of purification or mystery not immediately evident to the prisoners, but which they will be a part of and will be revealed later, such as contributing to the coming of the Messiah or the new Jerusalem. Ironically, there might be some validity to this argument given that some have noted that were it not for the Holocaust there might not have been such ideological momentum to found Israel in the world community. Of course, however good for the Jewish people this might have been in providing a refuge for them, it is still difficult to see the events which transpire in the film (even though the full horror of the Holocaust is not staged) as anything but a crime against humanity.
Finally, amongst the residents of the camp there is also one rationalist named Jacques who sees the existence of religion not as a debate over accuracy or morality, but as a statement of power. “It’s all about power. And you have lost. Someone had a better idea.” The idea of God is irrational, merely created to manipulate human beings, and Hitler has made himself into a god, as other men have in times past. Rather than being outraged at God, Jacques merely sees the concept as a philosophical crutch. Yet this does not seem to emotionally satisfy most of the men: even the fieriest critics of God still rage against the Supreme Being, as futile as this might be.
The greatest evidence of God the film provides is not prayer and speeches, however, but the men’s transcendent humanity which is larger than the darkness and the evil that will send some of them to their deaths. In Auschwitz, there are still moments of compassion, such as when the prisoners offer to allow any of the new prospective inmates who is ill to sleep in their beds. Another man who is sure he is going to die offers a spoon to a man to eat, knowing that he is unlikely to survive the selection process. There is a stark contrast between their previous life on the outside and the life on the inside — the men had jobs, lives, and secular and religious existences that are all obliterated by the camps and their new identities as prisoners. But they are still capable of showing compassion and an interest in the life of the mind, retaining their humanity in the face of depravity.
God on Trial. BBC, 2008.
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