God On Trial: a new 90-minute drama for BBC Two
Stephen Dillane plays Schmidt
Schmidt is a rabbi who has written translations of the psalms, many books on law and a play. He is a well-educated, kind and intelligent man, who is incredibly optimistic, with a strong faith in God.
Appointed the Father of the Court, he takes an automatic leadership and is very fair, gentle and wants to keep the peace.
Stephen describes Schmidt's role as: "A slightly pastoral one but also – in the way of somebody who tries to be pastoral and isn't wanted – somewhat irritating I would imagine.
"He is trying to protect and nurture his fellow prisoners but his behaviour is also quite challenging as, if you're being told to have faith when you're about to be killed, you could find that pretty infuriating."
He enjoyed the ambitions of the project, shot over such a short period: "I thought that was an interesting challenge. It also felt like old-fashioned television in a way – a very intelligent, well-thought out piece of writing, and I was intrigued by it and by who it might appeal to."
It was an intense process: "We rehearsed for a week, which mainly involved sitting around a big table just off Regent Street and reading the script through again and again and talking about what we thought was going on.
"Then the film was spilt up into various sections. It naturally falls into two big courtroom drama scenes and then lots of little bits around it.
"The two big scenes were filmed on three cameras which were constantly running. We would play out 10 to 15 minute chunks and film them maybe two or three times over, which was a very interesting experience – a bit like doing theatre without the rehearsal.
"There was a strong adrenaline element which facilitates a kind of fluidity of exchange that you might get in the theatre but you don't always get in cinema."
The situation, being in Auschwitz, Stephen saw more as a backdrop for the subject under discussion than anything else: "The text was so demanding in terms of trying to grasp the nature of the piece and it was enough for me to try to inhabit somebody whose faith was strong enough to withstand the situation.
"But the actual business of being in Auschwitz didn't feel to me as if it was a priority."
He adds: "It was a pleasure to work on God On Trial because it was a truly shared experience.
"It was really about the attempt of a small group of people to get on top of a large amount of text in a very short amount of time, and the co-operation and the care that is involved in that process."
He was interested in the fact that the writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, is not Jewish: "I suppose if I think back I found it intriguing that Frank should have chosen to write this drama.
"It also made me think that the piece wasn't necessarily about the Jewish experience; it's about the question of faith.
"I suppose when I first read it I thought it was Frank's attempt to answer Richard Dawkins, and that he'd chosen this apocryphal story as a context in extremis to pose the questions both intellectually and physically – to do with language and to do with action."
Stephen continues: "Dawkins' book The God Delusion is head of the best seller list and this question of faith and what it is is very current.
"The recent issues with the Archbishop of Canterbury are intriguing; why is anyone paying any attention if we're so faithless, why is there any significance in what he says?
"So I don't think it necessarily needs an extreme situation to bring the question up. If you were to look for a modern parallel to people in extremis questioning their faith then any of those moments in history would be equal.
"Although what's particular about Auschwitz – as opposed to if you were to set it on the 114th floor of one of the Twin Towers – is that there is a single faith here and maybe that enables the question of faith to be asked more precisely.
"There are enough differences within the Jewish faith without having to get into the differences between different faiths. What's most important is an imaginative connection to what we as human beings are capable of doing to each other."