September 22, 2018

The Secret Life of Jewish Baseball Player Moe Berg

Morris “Moe” Berg’s 15-season career as a baseball catcher in the 1920s and ’30s was not exactly stellar, certainly nothing to write home -— or make a movie — about. But as Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” revealed, Berg had a post-major league career in espionage, and his story gets the cinematic treatment in a movie of the same name starring Paul Rudd. 

Berg, who was a brilliant Princeton University and Columbia law school graduate, was recruited by the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services in 1938 and went on espionage missions all over the world. The film dramatizes his most dangerous assignment: Determine if physicist Werner Heisenberg is building a bomb for the Nazis, and shoot him if the answer is yes.

“We wanted to tell the story of an unsung hero. He definitely put his life on the line even though that was not in his nature,” director Ben Lewin told the Journal. “He was a scholar and a humanist and there he was, a gun in his hand, possibly having to kill somebody. It’s also a story about the birth of the atom bomb, and it began to take on a spooky relevance, [considering] what we’re dealing with today.”

Lewin added that as a baby boomer “my youth was clouded by the Cold War, so it was all pretty meaningful to me, and it’s meaningful to today’s generation, as well.”

Born in Poland in 1947 to Jewish parents who had survived the war by escaping to Russia, Lewin has “always been fascinated by WWII stories that no one has ever heard about, unusual individuals that made a difference.” 

“I don’t think Moe pursued a Jewish way of life, but he was an American patriot committed to winning the war against the Nazis and his Jewishness added another level of commitment.” — Ben Lewin

Having grown up in Australia, he was not at all familiar with Berg or baseball. “But this was a man that no one really knew or understood,” he said. “I’m honored to be one of the people to make Moe Berg a better-known name.”

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Berg was a secular Jew, “but he was a Jew at Princeton and in baseball when that was a novelty, and there was no escaping [being Jewish],” Lewin said. “I don’t think Moe pursued a Jewish way of life, but he was an American patriot committed to winning the war against the Nazis and his Jewishness added another level of commitment.”

Focusing on eight years in Berg’s life, Robert Rodat’s screenplay combined reliable accounts with what Lewin called “informed speculation” about what was said in Berg’s meeting with Heisenberg,
for example. Although Berg states in the film that he is not a practicing Jew, he
goes to a synagogue before the climactic encounter.

“We don’t know if he actually visited a synagogue before he went to meet Heisenberg, but I think it’s fair to say that he had a moment of very serious reflection,” Lewin said. “I’m not a religious man, either. When push comes to shove, I’m probably an atheist, but I go to synagogue to reflect. There are days when you need to step back and look at the meaning of your life and who you are. If I were in Moe’s position, I would do that.”

For Lewin, telling a story with “a contradictory ending that’s such a departure from the classic spy drama” was a challenge. So was figuring out how to make the Czech Republic look like Zurich, Rome and the American locations where the film is set. But scenes in Boston’s Fenway Park were actually shot there, and even non-fan Lewin was impressed. “It opened my eyes to how important baseball is to so many Americans,” he said.

While filming there, Paul Rudd suffered a tendonitis injury that put him in a cast for two months. “He had to wear baseball mitts from the 1930s and they were not ergonomically designed,” Lewin said. “He took the role very seriously and insisted on using the correct period equipment. He was coached and he practiced and he did whatever he had to do whatever was necessary for the camera.”

That also applied to playing a man who spoke seven languages. Rudd “worked hard to get that right,” Lewin said. “I don’t think he knew more than a smattering of those languages before the movie. He certainly convinced me. He was passionate about doing [the role] and he brought a lot of relatability to a character that was very remote. That was very important, because otherwise Moe is a mystery on a page.”

Lewin (“The Sessions,” “Please Stand By”) put his childhood interest in writing and photography aside to become a lawyer, but he quit to go to film school in 1971 and subsequently worked for the BBC in England. His 1985 film, “The Dunera Boys,” told the story of 2,000 English Jews who were falsely suspected of being Nazi spies and sent to Australia in 1940. Lewin came to Los Angeles 24 years ago and lives in Santa Monica with his wife of 35 years, Judi, and their three children. 

He hopes that moviegoers are as enthralled by the mysterious Moe Berg as he was and appreciate the part Berg played in history. “I want the audience to identify with a character they’ve never met before and follow his journey, and take away a sense of an incident that could have affected the future of mankind,” he said. “I’m shining a light on a piece of history that people ought to know about. I hope people find it as interesting as I found it.”

“The Catcher Was a Spy” opens in theaters and VOD platforms on June 22.