When and Where Does The Catcher Was a Spy Take Place?

Ben Lewin’s ‘The Catcher Was a Spy’ is a period film that explores one of the most tumultuous times in history. The narrative opens a window into the United States’ efforts to sabotage Germany’s supposed attempt to build an atomic bomb under the leadership of Werner Heisenberg. Morris “Moe” Berg, a former baseball catcher who is assigned to determine the truth behind the rumor concerning the nuclear weapon, then crosses the Mediterranean Sea to arrive in Europe, where one of the most consequential happenings in the history of humankind unfolds in front of him! SPOILERS AHEAD.

1934 and Moe’s Japan Visit

The scenes in which Moe Berg is a baseball player are set in 1934, the year in which, in reality, the baseball catcher joined a group of American all-star players to play exhibition matches in Japan against a Japanese team that eventually became Yomiuri Giants. Japan and the year 1937 were immensely significant as far as Moe’s life was concerned. It was during this trip the baseball player shot videos of the city, shipyards, industrial complexes, and military installations around Tokyo Bay with a movie camera. In the film, as it happened in reality, Moe only uses the videos years after the visit but the recordings earn him a place at the Office of Strategic Services, the American counterpart of Britain’s MI6.

The 1940s: From Washington, D.C. to Europe

The attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) convinces Moe that he should start serving his country in World War II. He takes the recordings he shot in 1934 to the Office of Strategic Services and screens them to William “Bill” Donovan, the head of the intelligence agency. At first, Moe does a desk job with immense eagerness to get to the field. His wait finally ends when Donovan sends him to Italy with Robert Furman and Samuel Goudsmit on a mission to kill Werner Heisenberg if the German physicist is about to complete building an atomic bomb.

In reality, as the film depicts, Moe went to Europe to kill Heisenberg in 1944. The meeting between the former baseball player and the German physicist happens in December of the year. The year holds significance because it had become evident that Germany was going to lose World War II by then. Even Germans had started to expect the defeat of their country, which most likely convinced Moe that the Nazis didn’t have an atomic bomb getting ready. He might have realized that Heisenberg wouldn’t be expecting his country to lose if Germany was about to complete building a nuclear weapon.

Another significant aspect of the year was the progress the Manhattan Project had made. According to Philip Morrison, who was a part of the program under the leadership of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Heisenberg wasn’t as valuable as he was at the start of the decade. “I have no doubt that those were [Berg’s] orders and that he would have done it, but it would have made no difference. With our project, you could shoot Fermi in 1944 and it would have made no difference. A year before the [American] bomb, 100,000 people were working on it. By 1944, Heisenberg was no longer very valuable,” Morrison said, as per Nicholas Dawidoff’s ‘The Catcher Was a Spy.’

Moe and Heisenberg’s meeting happens in the city of Zürich, located in Switzerland, a neighboring country of Italy. Paul Scherrer, the physicist who helps Moe meet Heisenberg, had a house in Zürich, which explains the setting. As the movie depicts, the physicist and the spy met during a dinner party hosted by Scherrer. The movie was mainly shot in Prague, Czech Republic, even though it is set in all across the world. “And we had only 31 days, including a day at Fenway in Boston. We also had to cheat a number of locations around the world – Boston, New York, Washington, Geneva, Rome, the Italian Coast, Japan – and all in Prague!” cinematographer Andrij Parekh told Filmmaker.

Read More: How Many Languages Did Moe Berg Know? Did Paul Rudd Know Italian and German?