Pope vs. Hitler director Chris Cassel: ‘This is where real history happened’

Vilnius Cathedral standing in as Vatican

David van Roon of the Lithuania Tribune spoke with Cassel about the perks of filming in Lithuania, transforming its capital into a war zone, and always staying objective.

I meet the director at the Radisson Blu Astorija, in the heart of Vilnius Old Town. Summer has arrived to Vilnius. It is hot outside, but this does not seem to bother Cassel who grew up in New Jersey, US.

It is the director’s birthday today, but he is too busy to celebrate. His day is booked solid with interviews and the wrapping up of shooting. Where War & Peace director Tom Harper had a generous 110 days to shoot, Cassel had to make do with only 10 days. Still, he seems relaxed as he leans back into his chair and takes another sip of water.

David van Roon: This is the third time you are shooting a documentary in Lithuania. How does it feel to be back again?

Chris Cassel: It feels great. I was actually looking for an opportunity to come back. I really enjoy working with the local production company Baltic Film Services [ed: UAB Baltijos filmų paslaugos], and the two shows I shot here before did really well.

What makes you keep coming back?

The main thing for me has always been the reliability of the team here. The crew is very industrious and everything is taken seriously. I know that when I put my faith in the people here every day on set will run pretty smoothly. Aside from that, we are getting much more value for our dollar here than we would in most other places.

Tom Harper, the director of War & Peace, which was shot here in Vilnius too, said he was very enthusiastic about the costume designers. Is that something you recognize yourself in as well?

Absolutely. They did a fabulous job. If you watch Valkyrie [ed: a Hollywood film starring Tom Cruise and deals with much of the same subject] you can’t see a difference in costumes. They are really that good. In fact, I think that the pants of the actor who played Stauffenberg had a tag in that said Tom Cruise. So who knows, maybe those were really Tom Cruise’s pants!

What was the most memorable scene you shot this week?

We did a scene at Cathedral Square where we had a troop of Nazis surround the Vatican. We had to be very carefully in finding our angles, because nothing really matches the Vatican. However, I think we found some angles that will sell for the Vatican.

Anyway, we had the Nazis come in on these big transport trucks; unload and then fall into line. Loads of people stopped to watch us film this scene. It was so impressive.

Of course, I’ll be helped by some CGI elements here. We have some shots from the cathedral on which we will superimpose St Peter’s behind the troops.

I know that War & Peace used a lot of CGI too. Even smaller details like window frames got a whole treatment in such a way that they would match Moscow. How are you handling the CGI?

We are going to do a whole lot more than just alter some window frames. We have two scenes that take place in bombed out cities. For example, Šventosios Dvasios Street now doubles as Warsaw after it was bombed. We are basically going to have our CGI folks rip off the tops of the buildings there.

We did a similar thing up at the Greek monastery. During WWII the San Lorenzo district in Rome was destroyed by bombings. The pope went to visit the site, and that frankly was the first time in three years that he left the Vatican. His parents were buried in the cemetery next door. Apparently they were blown out of their graves by the bombs. Pius XII went there to just be with the people. It is quite a dramatic scene. Here again we found an angle that works. With CGI we will blow off the top of the clock tower and part of the church to make it look like it has actually been destroyed.

For previous projects, you’ve shot in some of Lithuania’s more historical locations, like Trakai castle. This time you were shooting in more modern locations like the former KGB prison?

The KGB prison is a chilling place. I did the tour, and really understand the history behind it now. It worked extremely well for our purposes, but the whole time we were shooting I had the realization we were in a place in which all of these terrible things really happened. You want to be respectful of that, and not just treat it as a set. I feel that way when I go into churches here as well. You are struck by the power of these places. It is where real history happened. I believe we are being held to a higher standard by shooting in such places.

The subject of Pope Pius XII and his public appearance during the War is still controversial. A lot of people believe he should have been more outspoken. Did you yourself pick a side?

When shooting I had to be objective. But, when I came into this project I sided with the pope for the most part. I still believe he is misunderstood and misrepresented in some ways, but I do see the argument on the other side too. I do question why he did not speak up; especially when the Jews of Rome were starting to be deported.

At the same time, a lot of experts have said that we cannot sit here and judge what happened 70 years ago. The situation was so fluid; Hitler was so unpredictable and threats were coming from so many different angles. The pope had some people telling him he should be speaking out, but then he also had a lot of priests and cardinals telling him to remain quiet. They had seen what happened in Poland. Each time the bishops condemned the Nazis’ actions there, it was followed by retributions.

What did the pope do to help the Jews during the War?

After the Nazis had invaded the Netherlands and Belgium, the pope sent out a message in which he was calling for peace. If you look carefully you can see that in veiled ways he was condemning the Nazis. However, he was always careful not to do it outright.

Still, after that message there were mass deportations of Jews and Catholics. Up until that moment the church had been issuing baptismal certificates to Jews. Usually the Jews in question would be left alone upon showing such a certificate. But after that particular instance the Nazis revoked the validity of baptismal certificates. If you were a Jew then you were a Jew. Following the pope’s message, they took 40,000 out of Belgium and the Netherlands.

In other words, it was Pope Pius XII’s statements here that set off these mass deportations then?

There were a lot of instances in which cardinals or even the pope made statements that just inflamed the situation. But then there is the other side of the argument: he was the moral voice of the world. Why couldn’t he stand up? If it made him a martyr, so be it.

I don’t have the answers, and I don’t need to have them. I don’t think that is what this show is about to begin with. This documentary should promote the story and the different arguments involved of both sides.

You did a series before, Clash of Gods, which was focused on mythology. Do you tell myths differently from history, or do they overlap?

History and myths definitely overlap, and that was what that series was about. Finding the real roots of those stories. I always love to analyze true history, and see what has become of it in all those retellings.

Does the story of Pope Pius XII not become a myth in itself?

In a way, yes it does. But apparently the Vatican is holding on to some records regarding the matter, and they may be released soon. Pius XII had an affinity with spy craft. He had a secret recording system installed with which he recorded all of his conversations with diplomats. I know there is a movement going now to get those released. I think these recordings will shed a lot of light on the story and fill in the blanks.

You must be craving to have access to those archives then?

Yes, I do. But, in a way, a little bit of mystery is a good thing. If we can intrigue the audience to form their own opinions, and at the same time leave the door open for future discoveries, then that would be very satisfying.

When the documentary has aired, what does the response need to be for you to feel like you have been successful?

The most gratifying thing for me is hearing from a teacher who has used a film I’ve shot in the classroom. Over the years I’ve got a lot of emails saying that my work really brought a subject to life in a way that the textbook couldn’t. It had made the students think. That sort of feedback is my absolute favourite.

I hope this documentary will make the general public more aware of this forgotten part of history; this unlikely connection between the Vatican and what was happening in Germany.

Now that you have shot three projects here, would you come back a fourth time?

Definitely! If I find the right story I will be back. Also, I’ve never brought my family or came here as a tourist. I would love to simply hang around the town for a week.

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