Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Return to the Hiding Place opens this weekend. Just in time for the Memorial Day holiday, Return to the Hiding Place is a suspense-filled action-packed World War II drama about a ragtag band of Dutch teenagers who risk their lives to thwart the Nazis and save innocent Jews during the Holocaust.

The film, a winner of several festival prizes, premieres this weekend in six theaters in selected cities, including Chicago, San Antonio and New Braunfels, Texas, Holland, Mich., and Washington D.C. A wide opening of 300+ theaters is planned for later this fall.

Return to the Hiding Place is based on the true story taken from the autobiographical book of the same name written by Hans Poley (David Thomas Jenkins) that recounts his experiences as a student resistance fighter during the Holocaust in World War II.

Synopsis (from the film’s website):When Corrie ten Boom realizes the rising Nazi empire will swallow Holland and create the holocaust of every innocent Jew in secret death-camps, she faces the deadly threat of these “Death-Skull Storm Troopers” with a surprising remedy: an army comprised of untrained teenagers.

Around that same time, brilliant young physics student, Hans Poley, chooses not to join the Nazi party. To protect him, his parents force him into hiding in the home of Corrie ten Boom. While in hiding, he witnesses the atrocities toward the suffering Jews and decides he must do something.

Hans is drawn in by resistance fighter, Piet Hartog, and love of Piet’s life – Aty van Woerden (Corrie ten Boom’s niece) into an intricate web of espionage and clandestine activities centered in the famous Hiding Place.

As part of Corrie ten Boom’s army of untrained teenagers, Hans, Piet, and their friends navigate a deadly labyrinth of challenges to rescue the Jewish people in their modern-day, panicked exodus from death while embarking on a nonstop, action-packed hunt with the underground involving Gestapo hijacks, daring rescues, codes in windswept old windmills, and stunning miracles in one of history’s most famous dramas. Climaxing in the true, breath-taking rescue of an entire orphanage of Jewish children marked for mass execution by Hitler’s assassins, audiences will both cheer and weep at this exciting, sobering tale of Hans and the youth movement that dared to resist one of History’s cruelest tyrants. CAST: John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings), Craig Robert Young (NCIS: LA, Hawaii Five-O), David Thomas Jenkins (CSI: Miami,” “Bold and the Beautiful), Rachel Spencer Hewitt (Fly by Night, A Civil War Christmas) and Mimi Sagadin (The Dilemma) as Corrie ten Boom, the woman behind what would become known as “Corrie’s Teenage Army.” Directed by: Peter C. Spencer/Executive Producers: Peter C. Spencer and Amanda Thompson/Produced by: Petra Spencer Pearce/Screenplay by: Peter C. Spencer and Bart Gavigan

Review: Based on the book of the same name (comprised of the wartime journals and letters of Hans Poley, portrayed in the film by David Thomas Jenkins), this incredible-yet-true story plays like The A-Team meets The Hunger Games and, if marketed well, should find an audience with young movie goers. It certainly deserves to. Just like it deserves the many festival prizes it has already won.

All of the performances are top notch. The well-written, thoughtful script offers romance, plenty of action, edge-of-your-seat suspense, inspiration and enormous heart.  On top that, it’s sprinkled with surprisingly witty dialogue. One scene, in which the young Christian heroes engage their elders in a debate about under what conditions it becomes morally correct to break the law to protect innocent people, is particularly provocative. Truly, this film has it all.

Peter Spencer’s directing is also first-rate. It’s actually hard to imagine Spielberg having done better. As for the production values, they are genuinely amazing. Considering that the budget for the film was only a couple of million dollars, what ends up on screen veers toward fishes and the loaves miraculous.  I chalk that up to the obvious faith of the filmmakers.

What makes Return to the Hiding Place particularly appealing is its unabashed presentation of young idealists unabashedly believing in something larger than themselves as they stand up to true evil.  As writer Peter Spencer says in the interview below, “This is the kind of story that young people need to see.” In fact, we all do.

Return to the Hiding Place is very strongly recommended.

A family affair. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Peter C. Spencer and his daughter Petra Spencer Pearce about their collaboration on Return to the Hiding Place. Note: Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Peter’s other daughter plays the role of Aty van Woerden, Corrie ten Boom’s niece and love of resistance fighter Piet Hartog (Craig Robert Young). Peter’s son Josiah served as the film’s co-director and editor.

JWK: How did the Spencer family become so involved with this story?

PETER SPENCER: Of course, many people have read the story of Corrie ten Boom who hid Jewish people — 88O of them — behind the wall of her home in the Netherlands when the Nazis were slaughtering the Jewish population. So, I had heard that story as a young man growing up. One day I ran into and met an older man (Hans Polo) and, as we talked, it became clear that he had been in the Hiding Place…and he had been in the Resistance…So, as I began to hear the stories from him, it turned out that it was all teenagers — except for one 25-year-old man. The 88O Jews had actually been rescued by an army of teenagers that Corrie used to call her teenage army. So the stories began. I just started listening to his stories about breaking into Gestapo headquarters and things. To make sure they weren’t (exaggerated), I checked with the Dutch archives and checked historically and, sure enough, these young people had put their lives in danger. Many of this game their lives for total strangers. And, I thought, you know what, this is the kind of story that young people need to see — that is selfless, that is sacrifice and where you care for others more than you do yourself. So, he and I became close friends and I began to record his life story and that’s how this film came to be.

JWK: I have to say I’m impressed with this movie. It’s really edge-of-your-seat suspenseful.

PCS: Yeah. It’s amazing that it was young people doing these things and putting their lives on the line and it was the most terrifying military that they were up against that the world had never seen. It’s kind of humbling because I always ask myself “If I was 17-years-old, would I have done the same thing?”  That’s why, for me ,it was such an amazing story because it’s easy to see people do these things but it’s another thing to imagine what if my neighbor was about to have his life taken and he was innocent would I step in and endanger my own life? I think, ultimately for (these) true followers of Christ, it was about caring for others more than one’s self…That’s what really moved my heart about this story.

JWK: To me, your film almost has Hunger Games quality to it in that it’s an adventure about young people pitted against a dystopian government.

PCS: Right.

PETRA SPENCER PEARCE: What’s even more amazing though is that these things actually happened. There were so many other stories that we wanted to put into the film that but, had we put them in, it would have been a ten-hour film. We couldn’t include everything but, your right, it does have that quality of these kids fighting and risking their lives and all of it actually happened which truly blows my mind even to this day even though I’ve been working on it for so long. 

PCS: Incredibly, they lived those lives 24 hours a day for two and a half years.  It’s funny. In LA, a producer said “Peter, this is what you call it! It’s when Anne Frank meets The Hunger Games!”…So, it’s interesting you mention that. It does. It has that great tension.

JWK: And, since the heroes are young, it should tap into that audience.

PCS: Right, exactly.

PSP: Absolutely.

PCS: A lot of the more mature people, of course, know (of) Corrie. The younger people are attracted to the young people.

JWK: You mention all the stories involving these kids that you had to leave out. With so many stories to tell, did you ever consider doing it as a TV series?

PCS: That’s a great question.

PSP: We have kind of thrown that idea around. We’re very focused on working on this film right now and getting it distributed but we have talked about the possibility of doing a miniseries or something similar so that we can tell all of these stories because they’re amazing and they need to be shared.

JWK: When did you finish filming the movie?

PSP: We actually finished the film in January of 2013. We did the festival circuit all last year and received (several) awards and honors from festivals and from organizations like Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Memorial in Israel).

PCS: It’s a wonderful honor.

PSP: In January we were able to screen it at Sundance to a sold-out audience. We had over 700 people RSVP but our venue only held 130. So, we had people waiting outside the door in the snow hoping that could get in if somebody left. So, that was pretty awesome. So, once we finished that in January of 2014, we started heading toward the theatrical release this weekend.

JWK: So, you produced this through your own production company?

PCS: Spencer Productions is the production company.

JWK: How did you get the money together to make the movie?

PCS:  You know, it was investors that had vision. Wonderful investors. They had heard, of course, of Corrie ten Boom. For years people had been fascinated (by her). How did one woman hide 88O people — and feed them and everything else — in a tiny little house…They would read the script and they were moved to invest. Literally, one miraculous event took place after another…We shot some of the filming in Michigan and got rebates from Michigan…So, it’s been investors who caught the vision and invested. No big corporations. Just individuals.

JWK: What was your experience before doing this film?

PCS:  I had done exclusively documentaries before this…This was the first time I have done a (dramatic) feature. It was one of those things. As a boy, I watched at least one movie a day, usually two movies a day. I loved to study movies and why they work and why they don’t work. I love to have people in suspense. I also love to see the hearts of people moved. I’ve been a public speaker for years — (from) when I was very young — and an apologist. (Making this movie) was a matter of communicating ideas from Point A to Point Z in a format that was (interesting).  Once again, people get moved by a good story. It all comes down to a great story.

JWK: The movie was something of a family project. What was that like — to do this film as a family? Did you grow closer working together on it?

PSP: Yeah, we did. I’ve been a producer for ten years, I believe, now. When you work in this industry it can be really difficult to find people who you trust unequivocally while you’re moving full-steam ahead and making your movie or your commercial or TV show or whatever it is you’re working on. I think one of the neat things for us that that we’re an extremely close-knit family to begin with. We all have previously been working previously in our respective fields in the industry. So, we had the experience to come together and work on this…and use our skills for this film that meant so much to us as a family. We knew that we could trust each other to have our backs essentially. We didn’t have to worry about how the money was being spent…I mean you really want to know that you can trust that the people who  doing their jobs are doing them well. We (also) had a lot of great crew members that weren’t related to us that did their jobs very well but was great for us to be able to come together as a family on a project that meant so much to us because this film has been seventeen years in the making from the time my dad started talking to Hans about his story, doing the research and the scriptwriting and all of that. So, we all grew up with this story.
JWK: What kind of budget did you have for this movie?
PCS:  It has a big big budget look…We had 180 people, maybe 200 people, that were on the set at one time when we had all the extras. It’s not…like a home movie but it was under two million and that covered everything — pre-production, as well as production, as well as post-production, travel to Europe with crew and cast and everything else. So, it was a very conservative budget.

JWK: Where was the movie shot?
PCS: We shot in Holland, Michigan. Of course, we picked Holland because — besides the fact that (Michigan) was one of the states that gave rebates — Holland, Michigan was founded by the Dutch. So, there were so many (Dutch) buildings there, including a beautiful windmill that was transported from Europe and still had bullet holes from World War II in it. So, we had some extraordinary shots at the windmill and the area around the windmill. I’ll tell you something. I had drawn storyboards for the shots and when we landed on the location…I held (a) storyboard up and it was a photographic duplicate of the actual place we shot. Holland, Michigan was a real find for us, a gold mine.  We (also) shot in San Antonio. 
And then we shot (in the Netherlands) at the original Hiding Place where the Jews were hidden during WWII which is now a small museum…It is my understanding that we are the only film that has been allowed to shoot at the actual Hiding Place. It’s wonderfully kept. It’s still in the condition it was in the 1940’s.  Having John Rhys-Davies there in that tiny staircase where all these people were huddled behind a wall was a very moving experience.
JWK: That must have been some experience.
PCS: I’ll tell you, one evening, after the crew had wrapped, there was a lamp on and (I was) just imagining what it would have been like being in that little tiny domicile…and suddenly being alerted and having to run, scooting beneath that sliding door which was only about eighteen inches above the ground and hiding behind that wall knowing that I might stand there for two days, three days, four days. There were no potty breaks. There was no going out to the restroom for water. Whatever was back there — if there was water, great and, if there wasn’t that was too bad. Imagine the conditions and the terror as the Nazis (moved about) the house. It literally brought me to tears one night imagining (that) because I was literally standing in the environment, the actual place.
JWK: Have any of the survivors who lived through that actually seen the movie?
PCS: Actually Hans’ children and grandchildren have seen the film. The greatest compliment to me — as a director, as well as a friend of Hans — was when they said “We thought we were watching our dad (or) our grandfather on the screen. That moved me because we had grown to really love Hans and for his children to watch that film and say that they felt like they were actually watching their dad was a blessing.
And, of course, Corrie — who is the very famous person — her caretaker for the last ten years of her life saw the film in Dallas, Texas about a year ago. Afterwards, I said “Well, what do you think?” She said the very same words. She said “Peter, I’m telling you (it was like) watching Corrie on the screen. I was so caught (up) in the story.
So, (it was great) for us to know that we had portrayed the characters correctly because it is real history. I don’t know how many hundreds of actor we looked at to find Corrie and how many hundreds to find Hans…Even to find the right spirit f and not just brilliant actors. Both of them are but…(we needed to find) have the right spirit to come across on the screen. We found that in those two actors.
JWK: How did you get John Rhys-Davies aboard?

Two years before we started the casting, I just felt the impulse that John Rhys-Davies belonged in this film…I went ahead and I printed out a photograph from the internet and I put it up on the wall (where) there are things that I pray about throughout the day. So, I had lists and things. So, his photograph hung there. (When) it became time to the hiring, people said “You’re never going to be able to hire John Rhys-Davies. It’s going to cost way too much money. He’s a famous actor.” They told me all the reasons why it wouldn’t work — yet God was very gracious in providing our access to him.
PSP: We had a great casting director…We said we’d really like to get in touch with John Rhys-Davies because we feel he really needs to be in our film. She went “Oh, you know what?! I know his manager! (I’m) going to go talk to her.” My dad said “It’s going sound a little crazy but I want to write a personal letter.” So, he wrote a personal email explaining why he felt that John would be a great fit for this film. He sent it along with a script to his manager. He wrote back saying “John is  considering about five different scripts that would shoot at the time that you’re shooting but I’ll give it to him.” She gave it to him and we got a call almost immediately — I would say in the next day or two — saying “You know what? John read your letter and he read your screenplay and he said…he loves your film so much that he wants to shoot it.”…He was willing to do it for less than he normally does it for other films. We didn’t have the budget that a Hollywood film has but he loved it so much that he was willing to do it within our budget…So, we went to the Netherlands and filmed with him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man. He’s extremely talented and very kind. All of that shows through I think in his acting. All of his true kindness and his true self comes through. So, we are really very fortunate to, not only have him in our film, but to have him as a friend now that we’ve worked with him. Everyone once in a while, he’ll call on Skype just to say “Hi.”  So, it’s a pretty neat thing.
PCS: He’s a very intelligent actor.
JWK: One of the most interesting scenes in the film — I thought — was the one showing the young Christians debating their elders about at point it becomes a moral act to break the law and subvert the a government.
PCS: It’s a blessing that you mention that because it’s not as predictable as many Christian films might be and that’s why it probably bridges a lot of gaps…We wanted people to understand that these were young people that were really devoted to the concepts of a faith that were different many times to the principles that organized religion (taught). I was willing to put that in the film. I actually had a couple of pastor friends — wonderful guys — say “You can’t put that in there! Good grief! If you deal with those issues it will upset people and they won’t want to go to your film. I said “To tell you the truth, I think Jesus probably upset people because he dealt with issues nobody wanted to deal with and that’s probably going to be the most important thing about the film. I want people to think after they see this film. I want them to ponder.
JWK: I think by dealing with those issues, you actually engage the audience and broaden it.
PCS: I agree.
JWK: What do we — in our time — have to learn from the story of what these people faced in theirs?
PSP: I think there are so many things to take from it today. I think one of the main things to take away is (that) these kids were middle school, high school, college students who one day were just enjoying life and the next day they had to make a life-and-death decision about whether they were going to go with the majority and the strong…or if they were going to make the decision to risk their lives and say “No” and stand against it.  They knew what was right.
So, I think people in our generation, we are put in situations where we have the choice to go with the flow…as opposed to doing what we know is right. They risked their lives every single day for people they didn’t know because they believed that it was wrong for Jewish people to be killed for the mere fact that they were Jewish. Every single Jewish person who was hidden in the ten Boom home escaped to freedom but those that were in the underground — the vast majority of them — were killed. So, for us today, I think it’s important to look at that and say if these kids could do it — if they could make a difference even though they were young — (then)  even though I feel like I’m only one person, if I make the right decision and I do it then I can make a difference as well.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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