Stranger Things star Noah Schnapp said landing a role in the screen adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s war drama Waiting for Anya appealed to him because it “resonated” with his Jewish identity.
Schnapp, Anjelica Huston and Thomas Kretschmann lead a strong cast alongside Jean Reno, Sadie Frost and Frederick Schmidt in the coming-of-age drama, which is directed by Ben Cookson and set in occupied France during the Second World War.
Based on a true story and shot on location in rural southern France, the story follows a young shepherd, played by Schnapp, who with the help of his grandfather (Jean Reno) and a feisty widow (Anjelica Huston) smuggle Jewish children across the border to safety in Spain.
Schnapp, 15, appeared at the film’s glittering UK premiere at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square on Thursday night, where he was joined by his co-stars Frederick Schmidt, Elsa Zylberstein and Josephine de la Baume.
The Canadian-American actor, clad in a chic black-and-white polka dot suit, told Jewish News that his Jewish upbringing meant he “really resonated with the film”.
He added: “I talked to my family about it to understand more about Second World Two and the Holocaust. But we were all super excited about it, us being Jewish, being a part of this film. My parents were definitely really excited.”
Some of the themes explored in the film, he said, are still prescient today. “It has a lot to do with moving people across borders and leaving their conflict zones and I feel like that really has to do with current times, what’s going on in the world right now,” he said.
Echoing Schnapp, screenwriter Toby Torlesse, 23, who made his debut with the film, said it remains “more relevant than ever” amid rising levels of antisemitism.
“There are crazy numbers of adults here in the UK who deny the Holocaust, whether that is statistics or that it ever took place,” he said.
Producing the script for the film was “challenging” in light of the subject matter, he said.
But “I was fortunate enough that I was basing my story, my script on an extraordinary work by Michael Morpurgo,” he added about his favourite childhood novel.
The film’s director and co-writer Ben Cookson (Almost Married) said the subject matter struck a cord with the cast and crew and there were “definitely tears on set on a couple of occasions.”
Cookson warned the world hadn’t learnt the lessons of the Holocaust.
“We’re on the cusp of losing the last generation that’s experienced these events for real. They won’t be with us forever,” he said.
Recounting a scene shot in Lescun featuring many extras hired from the region, he said: “The last time this village saw German soldiers, they were real Nazis carrying live ammunition.”
“We were lucky when we were filming in the Pyrenees there were still people in their mid-90s, including shepherds who lived through these events, the occupation,” he added.
“It’s important that film and books and literature keeps these stories relevant because without that we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.”
Waiting for Anya (12A) will be out in UK cinemas next Friday