By Timothy Arden
There’s a particular phrase in the film industry that producers and studios love to utter when a new script falls on their desk: ‘high concept’.
A high-concept story is one that is based around an idea that is deceptively simple and striking. It grabs the attention straight away and can be typically preceded by the words “What if?” Many of the most popular blockbuster movies hang on a high-concept premise, such as Jurassic Park (‘What if dinosaurs could be cloned?’) or Inception (‘What if you could enter other people’s dreams?”).
I provide this cinema 101 for two reasons. Firstly, new novel Freiheit is the debut of British filmmaker Ben Pickering and began life as a film script. Secondly, because it’s a doozy of a high-concept, neatly summed in its subtitle: “What if Hitler had never lived?”
Set in the near future, the narrative revolves around James Curtis, a handsome, rich kid orphan-turned-cat burglar and his nerdy partner-in-crime, Luka Rothstein. They are modern-day Robin Hoods, returning artworks looted by the Nazis during the Second World War to their rightful owners.
Curtis’s luck runs out while attempting to reclaim Picasso’s lost watercolour ‘Naked Woman on the Beach’ from the mansion of Russian oligarch Grigor Ivanovich. Betrayed to the guards by Rothstein, he makes a daring getaway in his Ferrari but is captured by the FSB (formerly the KGB) and finds himself in the holding cells of the Russian security service’s Moscow HQ. Here he is tortured and expects to be killed, until receiving a surprise visitor, Colonel Arnold Crombie.
There is bad blood between Curtis and Crombie, whom he blames for the death of his father. However, the former Army chief is now working for NATO and offers Curtis a lifeline, recruiting him for a project taking place at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Upon his arrival at the world-famous institute’s Geneva base Curtis is introduced to chief scientist Ida Schildberg and her assistant, Gideon Eli. He astounded to learn from them that they have made a discovery more profound than that of the Higgs boson, and one that could literally change the world forever: Trans-Animate Matter Transfer (TMT). In other words, time travel.
NATO is now funding CERN for the purposes of military research and having previously zapped inanimate objects and small animals along the timeline, they need a human guinea pig to continue their tests. Curtis is the man for the job, whether he likes it or not.
Going with him is none other than Rothstein, who is revealed to have been working with Crombie all along. Rothstein recommended his former partner for the job because, as Eli puts it, he has a “leap first, ask questions later approach” which is ideal for such bold exploration.
In return for his cooperation, Curtis will have his criminal record wiped clean and so, begrudgingly, he and Rothstein are fitted with TMT bracelets and make their first jump, initially only 24 hours into the past. The test mission is a complete success, with no harmful effects on the time travellers, so they are sent off again, this time back to the London Blitz to see how humans handle TMT in time AND space.
Rothstein seems to be enjoying the adventure and, to Curtis’s concern, seems quite blasé about the potential repercussions of changing events in the past – something that the boffins back at CERN have warned against because of the potentially dire consequences. What Curtis doesn’t know is that Rothstein is on another mission of his own, to kill Hitler before he ever had the chance to rise to power through the German Workers’ Party and become Führer.
Travelling back to the present, Curtis finds himself in an alternative dystopian future where the Nazis won World War Two and have conquered Britain, with London now known as ‘Hessburg’, after Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess. Joining forces with an outlawed band of resistance fighters, the Freiheit (German for “freedom”) Movement, Curtis sets out to restore the broken timeline. There’s only a few small problems: his TMT bracelet has been taken, the Nazis are hunting him down, and he has no idea when and where Rothstein assassinated Hitler. It’s going to take all his ingenuity, and the full support of Freiheit, to stop his foe in his time tracks.
Freiheit is a cracking, fast-paced work of alternative history that has it all: gripping action; plenty of peril; a romantic interest for Curtis in the form of Billie, the leader of the resistance; and the highest stakes to play for. It makes for one heck of a taut and suspenseful beach read.
In fact, it is the epitome of a literary blockbuster, with a sweeping story that spans continents and timelines, and larger-than-life characters that you either root for, such as wise-cracking hero Curtis, or despise, as with SSObergruppenführer Dietrich Hauser, Deputy Head of the Gestapo, Hessburg Division, described as a “solid block of a man” and “a thoroughbred b*stard”.
The lead characters, though, aren’t merely cartoons. They have depth and pathos to them, and Pickering makes sure to share their backstories so that the reader understands what drives them to act as they do.
Pickering has clearly done his homework as the novel is well researched and there’s a ton of detail that helps set the scene and provide additional context. You’ll certainly come away from it knowing a lot more about the origins of the Nazi party and Hitler’s ascension.
I also like how he weaved in philosophical themes about the morality of changing the past, if you could. It’s a tempting proposition, especially when reading the moving descriptions of the devastation caused by the Blitz…
“Nothing could have prepared Curtis for the devastation above ground. The Luftwaffe’s volley had set London ablaze, decimating the skyline.
The church. Gone.
The old lady’s house. Gone.
The Marquis of Granby. Gone, apart from a swinging door to the basement where they first landed.
The sirens of fire trucks echoed along the streets, the crackle of fires punctuated by the wailing of a mother into a father’s shoulder as two fire fighters removed their lifeless child from the rubble.
It made Curtis sick to the pit of his stomach.”
Rothstein certainly has no compunction when it comes to fiddling with history, but the novel’s message is that by trying to tamper, you risk making things a whole lot worse. As the author explains, Hitler was possibly thwarted in his ambitions of world domination by his irrational hatred of certain groups. It led him into open conflict with Communist Russia, significantly weakening his forces, whereas other prominent Nazi figures such as Himmler or Göring may have been far more ruthlessly focused and efficient. It’s some wonderful food for thought.
This theme of accepting and learning from the past to make a better future may also by personal to Pickering, who received a six-year prison sentence in 2014, at the age of 35, after being convicted of mortgage fraud dating back to his mid-20s. While behind bars he feared that his directing career, that had been on the rise since his first feature, 2014’s The Smoke, was over and so took the opportunity to study creative writing. Freiheit, which he originally penned as a screenplay back in the 1990s, was the result and won the 2017 Koestler Platinum Award for longer fiction, run by ex-offenders charity Koestler Arts.
Unlike some celebrity offenders, the author has always accepted his guilt and the punishment he received. Since his release in 2017, having served half his sentence, Pickering has been able to re-establish his film career, starting with last year’s crime thriller Welcome to Curiosity—notable as the world’s first film to have its production budget entirely crowdfunded—and he maintains that a large part of that is down to his unvarnished penitence.
From reading his debut novel, it seems that his spell in jail was well spent. He has emerged as both a director and, now, author to watch, and you won’t regret spending time with Freiheit.
Exclusive Q&A Interview with Ben Pickering
Award-winning author and filmmaker Ben Pickering speaks to us about the origins of his gripping debut novel, Freiheit, his upcoming movie Election Night, and the difference between writing books and screenplays, among other things.
Q. What was your inspiration for Freiheit?
A. Freiheit has been kicking around on my desk for well over twenty years. My long-time producing partner Darren Ripley came up with the original idea back in the mid-nineties and we wrote it as a script. It was to be our ‘studio’ film, the one with the big budget, if we ever got that opportunity. Life didn’t quite pan out like that and Darren and I went our separate ways for the next ten years. But we teamed up again just before my son was born in 2010. I optioned four of his scripts, going on to direct two of them and developing the other two for us to direct in the near future. But this always felt like the one that got away for both of us. So I took it forward, starting from scratch and rebuilding the story into the epic tale spanning a continent that it now is.
But it’s been finding the right time to release a book about Nazis and an alternative history for Europe. The post-war period saw a lot of war films; the sixties and seventies saw books like Where Eagles Dare and The Eagle Has Landed turned into Hollywood features. Then there was a lull until the Noughties, when films like Valkyrie, Downfall and Inglorious Basterds revisited the genre. And then a gap until recently with the likes of The Man In The High Castle in the States and SS-GB in the UK.
So it felt like it was now or never!
Q. How would you describe the book, and whom do you think it will appeal to the most?
A. I hope it will appeal to a diverse readership from YA fans of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner to older readers familiar with the work of Robert Harris in Fatherland. Freiheit is a very modern, yet very traditional, story of heroes and villains, good and evil, right and wrong, set against a strangely familiar and frightening backdrop of a world 90 degrees off the one we live in today. But it wouldn’t have taken much for us to be living in that world now (or not as the case may be for many of us!). For as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
Q. You are currently working on a second novel. Tell us about it…
A. I wrote a lot inside! I spent the first year and a half locked up from 6pm until 8am the following morning, and wrote at least half a million words behind that door.
While I was in Dartmoor, I was learning trades—I really didn’t think I’d be able to return to the creative industries upon release. I was then married and had two young children so I had to be sensible and find a new career to be able to support them. So I learned to wall tile and brick lay. And I wasn’t bad!
One day in the tiling shop, this junkie next to me was smashing tiles over his head. It was his party trick. I turned to one of the other lads and mused that out of 300 million sperm, he was the fastest and how I worried about the future of the human race if he had children. And then I stopped in my tracks. I’d stumbled across the best idea I’d ever had for a film or a book. I went back to my cell at lunchtime, put the inedible salad to one side, and frantically scribbled a prison-based dystopian story called The Last Resort. I was in the middle of writing Freiheit at the time. Having spent my early life half starting lots of things and not finishing any of them, it took a lot of self-restraint to not dive straight into writing it. But with Freiheit now about to make its way into the world, I started work on The Last Resort this summer. It feels like a trilogy, so hopefully the first book will be ready to go this time next year.
I’m also planning to release two other, non-fiction books over the next year: The Prisoner’s Survival Handbook, which will come out later in the autumn and is a must-read for anyone facing time inside or who has a loved one in there; and my prison journal In The Nick Of Time. I wrote them both to shed light on the prison system as it really is, using my own journey through the British justice system as a cautionary tale to others.
Q. How did the writer in residence at your prison help your development as a writer, and what was the most important piece of writing advice you received?
A. I spent the first six months in jail writing everything by hand, often twice over in case anything happened to the original in a “cell spin”. That little bump we all had on our pen finger as school kids came back with a vengeance! Then I found out that Dartmoor was one of two jails in the UK (out of more than 100) to have a writer-in-residence. She was an accomplished writer and published novelist herself, and through our two three-hour sessions a week in her computer room, she gave myself and a handful of others like me the opportunity to get our scribbles into electronic form. It made a massive difference, as until then my mum had been transcribing my handwritten work on the outside. I wouldn’t have finished any of my books without her. She was an absolute diamond.
As for the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever received, it’s simple: write every day. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you’ve broken up with someone or had bad news. Because it’s in those darkest of times when everything feels like it’s falling apart that we find the inspiration for some of the best ideas. There’s a lot of The Last Resort that is based on my most difficult experiences inside, slightly exaggerated versions of those experiences but based in reality. Once upon a time, I couldn’t have written about them. But time heals and now those experiences are just inspiration.
Q. Do you now see yourself more as a novelist or filmmaker?
A. I’m a storyteller so I guess that allows me to say I’m now both! There’s also a freedom about telling a story through a novel that you don’t get when you write a script and make it into a film. All of the inevitable limitations of film, like budget or access to a location or a historical character, aren’t there. Much of what I do in Freiheit, the book, came about because I was unshackled from those limitations. I was only limited by my own imagination.
Q. Freiheit is the sort of story begging for a film adaptation. Is this something that may happen in the future?
A. As mentioned, a script for a film adaptation already exists. It’s an epic story, spanning both Europe and time, immortalising figures of our recent history and retelling that story from a different perspective. I’d love to see it made into a film, though I imagine it’d be expensive to do it justice. It also lends itself to a prequel series, something telling the story of events in the world that lead up to those in the book. Crafting that alternative history took a lot of research parcels…
Q. You have produced a new film coming out this Halloween, Election Night. What is the film about and how do you think it will be received?
A. I’ve never wanted to make a political film before. They’re rarely done well and I always thought they’d only appeal to politicos. But recent events have brought politics into all of our lives and have led me to change my mind, at least this once!
I’ve teamed up with film director Neil Monaghan, who used to work for former Labour Deputy PM John Prescott, to produce Election Night. It’s a home invasion movie set on a fictitious election night in the near future. A radical left-wing leader is set to take over from a weakened Conservative government but a right-wing populist is waiting in the wings. Sound familiar?
We should probably have made it into a documentary, with everything going on in the world of politics right now. But who could have foreseen the world we now live in just a few years ago? The film doesn’t take sides, but shows what happens when people stop compromising and start hating each other.
We finished filming in June and we’re in a race against time to get it ready for its first public screening on October 31st, Brexit Day. Or Hallowe’en. Or both if you’re a Remainer!
Q. What’s next for you as a director?
A. Having produced a few feature films for other directors this year, I’m itching to get back into the director’s chair myself. So next up for me will either be a psychological thriller set on the west coast of Ireland or a Bollywood musical set here in the UK. Or both! 2020 looks like being a busy year…
Q. What are the main differences between writing a film script and a novel?
A. With a film script, it’s all about show and tell. Through the collaboration of actors, locations, costume, make-up, cinematography and music, you create your characters and tell your story as an audio-visual experience.
With a novel, it all has to be on the page. It’s not just about what the characters say or don’t say; it’s about their motivation and about what’s going on inside their head. And it’s about events going on elsewhere in this world you’ve created that impact on those characters without them yet knowing about it. You tell a story in both a script and a novel, but the suspense and reveal is all different. They are similar disciplines but with big differences.
Q. What are the books, and movies, that have inspired you the most?A. I’ve always loved espionage so I guess the answer to both is the same. It’s a James Bond book and film that I always felt was probably the series at its best: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starring George Lazenby in his only Bond film. It’s Fleming’s best book by far. It was also the first proper film that I saw. My dad was a kitchen salesman in the 1980s and used to work all the hours that God sent. He rang me from work one day and told me to turn on the TV quick. We had a rented TV from Granada with one of those corded remote controls. So I fumbled about and got there just in time to see James Bond racing along the coast in an Aston Martin in pursuit of a pretty girl he’d fallen in love with. Within minutes I was hooked on James Bond and on making films, and began a lifetime preoccupation with chasing pretty girls along the coast too.