By Harvey F. Chartrand
March 14, 2005 - 6:23 AM PST
Shot in Vancouver's seediest district on a budget of only $100,000 (Cdn), Hitler Meets Christ (from a stage play by actor Michael Moriarty) follows two mentally ill, homeless men, who have mysteriously assumed the personae of the polar opposites of good and evil - Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler.
"I wrote the play in the late 80s," Moriarty says. (It was then called Hitler and Christ Meet Death at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.) "At that time, I was very close to Elie Weisel, the Nobel-Prize-winning writer. I did a reading on Theatre Row and invited Weisel to attend. He said this play ought to be produced."
Hitler Meets Christ was a recognition of how deeply performing in Holocaust affected Moriarty, who won a Golden Globe for his role as Nazi Erik Dorf in the landmark 1978 TV mini-series. "I had to write Hitler Meets Christ to try to understand why such evil can exist. My role in Holocaust was most intriguing, because the author (Gerald Green) really captured a human being turning rotten in front of your eyes."
In portraying such evil, a certain ritualistic distance must be maintained, because there is no possible way to convey the depths of evil inherent in Hitler and the Third Reich, Moriarty observes. "You just can't do it. You can only ritually reenact the story with as much dignity as an artist that you possess, and let the audience fill in the pieces. That?s not a position I can take with Hitler Meets Christ, though, because I'm playing a schizophrenic, alone and penniless and obsessed in his personal hell."
Moriarty says Hitler Meets Christ is "a comedy inasmuch as it allows the audience to laugh at Hitler, and a tragedy in that he's really a poor homeless man trapped and imprisoned by the soul of Hitler." Even as a subject for debate between two of society's outcasts, the possibility of Hitler's redemption for his monstrous crimes is a theme that is bound to stir controversy. (Moriarty plays "Hitler" - complete with the fascist dictator's trademark mustache - and Vancouver actor Wyatt Page [Valentine] portrays "Christ.")
Director and producer Brendan Keown believes that Hitler Meets Christ needs to be made, because it is controversial. "This film is risky on a cerebral level, but Michael's brilliant script allows us to tackle this subject matter in an intelligent way," he observes. "There was a lot of concern over the subject matter, the questions it would raise, and how it could be misunderstood or misrepresented by people before they had seen the film. The title alone is fairly controversial, but this doesn't mean that Hitler is a personality unworthy of study."
Wyatt Page and Michael Moriarty
Page believes the movie is bound to be controversial - inside and outside the Church. "It's going to challenge people and the way they view Christ and Hitler. The film is quite funny in spots, very dark in its humor. For the record, I of course do not condone Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich and the evil that they perpetrated on Mankind - specifically on the Jewish people. Hitler was the personification of evil on earth. I think what is going to be challenging for a lot of people is - just how far does God's love extend? Does the love of Christ extend to Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot or Josef Stalin? Religious scholars will have to wrestle with this question. When I first read the script, I couldn't wait to get to the end to see what the outcome would be. Is Hitler beyond redemption or isn't he? That question generates a lot of suspense."
For Moriarty, one of the biggest challenges was bringing together Christ and Hitler in a realistic and contemporary setting. "When you put mythic figures up in some cloudy land or special effects hell, it just doesn't work," he explains. Most of Hitler Meets Christ was filmed along East Hastings Street, Vancouver's skid row - said to be Canada's most dangerous urban environment.
Shot in stark black and white in mini-DV (digital video) format, Hitler Meets Christ is reminiscent of the early films of Ingmar Bergman. Keown cites the great Swedish director as a major influence, and also admires the work of Andrzej Wajda. The film's "Bergman look" is credited to director of photography A. Jonathan Benny, a native of Jerusalem.
"We used compact cameras that let us shoot discreetly throughout Vancouver with a minimal set-up and crew," Keown says. "This was important, as we wanted to infiltrate the heart of the city, especially for the scenes that took place in and around Vancouver's East Side. The quality of the video image reflects reality. The story deals with two homeless men and we placed the actors in some fairly unappealing locales. It is shocking what is taking place in East Vancouver. It seems to be sliding deeper into the abyss."
But it served as the ideal backdrop for Hitler Meets Christ.
"We tried to work in that environment as seamlessly as possible," Page recalls. "The way Michael and I were dressed - very shabbily - we fit right in. Even though we were acting out the scenes, none of the people in the area saw the cameras. I'm thinking of one area in particular - Pigeon Park, a hangout for drug addicts and alcoholics. A lot of drug-dealing and illicit sex goes on there. But they couldn't see the cameras and we were wearing hidden mikes attached to our inside pockets with a Powerpack underneath our belt. We were able to play our scenes unnoticed. The shoot went along very smoothly. We finished it in 17 days."
Keown and producer Jeremy Dyson (partners in Vancouver's Third Tribe Productions) had just started pre-production on American Burger, a low-budget science-fiction movie, when Moriarty contacted them about collaborating on a project. (Moriarty has lived and worked in Vancouver since 1999.)
"We got a call from a friend who said that there was someone who wanted to meet us," Keown remembers. "He was interested in the type of projects we were doing. We agreed to meet this unidentified gentleman for lunch and were of course very surprised to see that it was Michael Moriarty. I'm a fan of Michael's really early stuff, especially his work with director Larry Cohen (Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff).Michael had been looking for people who were into doing something that was a bit more art-house, more controversial than the average film he works on."
As for marketing such an unusual film (which Keown describes as an "experimental black comedy"), Third Tribe is looking at several unconventional strategies - all under wraps for the moment. Keown insists that the film will be seen, whether on DVD, pay-per-view, the art-house and film festival circuit, and/or the Internet. "It will find an audience," he pledges.
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"Just how far does God's love extend?"
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Harvey F. Chartrand
Editor of Ottawa Life Magazine, Harvey F. Chartrand has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Jerusalem Post, Shock Cinema, Take One, Rue Morgue, Filmfax, the Film Journal... the list just goes on and on.
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