- Holocaust Representation and Judicial Proceedings Against God on the Stage and Screen
[A]n extraordinary film in every way . . . Frank Cottrell Boyce has crafted a brilliant script [The San Francisco Chronicle, November 8, 2008].1
[V]ery good indeed, gripping both by means of theological debate and unexpected revelation [The Independent, September 4, 2008].2
Intelligent, thought-provoking, and unashamedly weighty [The Scotsman, September 1, 2008].3
In September 2008 in the United Kingdom, and November of the same year in the United States, a 90-minute drama titled God on Trial was aired on television to widespread critical acclaim. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film’s portrayal of prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau enacting judicial proceedings against God consistently resonated with reviewers as a profound exploration of the interface between theology and the Holocaust. Yet I will propose in this article that this reception is ultimately disquieting and that the film itself requires sustained reassessment. I will consider several aspects of the Holocaust’s representation in God on Trial with specific reference to an earlier work, Elie Wiesel’s 1979 play The Trial of God. The dramas have significant similarities: both works portray legal proceedings being enacted against God and both eschew final resolutions, encouraging the viewer to grapple with theological uncertainties that are not [End Page 95] resolved in or by the works themselves. Attending to the similarities and differences between these two dramas raises compelling questions about Holocaust representation and theological debate.
There has been much discussion in the aftermath of the Holocaust about how such an atrocity could and should be represented. As early as 1949, Theodor Adorno provoked reflection on the matter with his now oft-cited assertion that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”4 Numerous other commentators have stressed the core importance of this discourse; Michael Rothberg, for example, asserts the “absolutely central and unavoidable need for reflection on the means and modes of representation in all scholarly and lay approaches to the Holocaust.”5
Taking up Rothberg’s challenge, this article focuses specifically on theological discourse and Holocaust representation. The development of literature on religious responses to the Holocaust has been vast, especially since the publication of Richard Rubenstein’s seminal and controversial work After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism in 1966.6 This article is not, however, a theological discussion. Rather than asking whether God is in fact guilty for the atrocities of the Holocaust, I will be attending to the modes of representation at play and the purposes that underlie them. This will involve facing a number of questions, some directly addressing the religious dimensions of these dramas, others less so. Thus two of the questions that will be posed are “secular” concerns that might be asked of many Holocaust representations: How do God on Trial and The Trial of God relate to perceptions of historical truth? And is there a problematic gap between the intended framing of these dramas and how they are perceived among some commentators?
Despite these being essentially secular questions, dramas as theologically loaded as Cottrell Boyce and Wiesel’s also provoke questions of representation with peculiarly religious dimensions. Thus it will be necessary to ask, firstly, how are the differing contexts of Christianity and Judaism’s relationships with the Holocaust addressed in these dramas? And, secondly, how do these dramas relate to the phenomenon of sacralizing Holocaust memory?
While the following discussion will not address each of these questions in turn—for they are in reality too deeply intertwined with one another—these four questions are central to making sense of why God on Trial and The Trial of God are framed in the manner that they are, and furthermore why their creators’ representational choices should not be accepted uncritically.
Before engaging with these questions in depth, however, it is worth more fully introducing the plots of, respectively, Cottrell Boyce’s God on Trial and Wiesel’s The Trial of God. God on Trial begins with scenes of an elderly man and young woman (respectively, Hugo, played by David de Keyser, and Emily, played by Louise Marden-borough) visiting the present-day site of Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of...