Eight years after Cecil B. DeMille’s definitive silent film about the life of Christ, The King of Kings, Julien Duvivier brought Jesus back to cinema screens. The difference between the two films, however, is far greater than mere language. The King of Kings typifies the stagey pseudo-piety that has typified most American cinematic Christs, whereas Golgotha like Pasolini’s more widely known Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (Gospel According to Matthew) captures something deeper, mysterious and more spiritual with its simpler feel.
That is not to say that Golgotha has not been done a grand scale. The opening scenes of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem are as vast as anything Hollywood has had to offer us; but the scene also typifies the difference. Jesus is almost entirely absent from it. Yet, even without subtitles or a knowledge of French it is clear what is happening. Duvivier teases the audience showing the hustle and bustle of the crowd, the Pharisee’s discussing what has been going on, the action at a distance, and even a shot of the crowd from Jesus’s point of view as he passes through, but delaying showing us Christ himself. It is an fascinating device, drawing the audience into the story, and making them part of a crowd that is straining to see Jesus.
When Jesus (played by Robert Le Vigan) finally does appear, over ten minutes into the film, it is at a distance, and shot from a low angle. He is almost obscured by his disciples, and there is a moment of confusion as to whether this is really he. The effect is to give the viewer the impression of actually being there, and discovering Jesus for the first time. Caught in the crowd, nudging ineffectively towards the action to catch a glimpse of the man everyone is chattering about. Eventually you can make out his distant figure moments before he disappears through the temple doors.
Inside the temple Duvivier delivers the finest sequence in the entire film, and one of the most memorable scenes in any Jesus film to date, as Jesus drives out the money-changers. The sequence starts with several, quick, shots intercut in a way reminiscent of Hitchcock’s legendary shower scene in the later Psycho. The first shot prefigures the action to come as coins swept off an off-screen table crash onto the floor and scatter. It is quickly followed by swift series of action and reaction shots. The sequence culminates in a single long take, over 30 seconds long which is the most impressive of them all. The camera tracks through the palisades of the temple in Jesus’s wake, straining to catch up with him as he zigzags from stall to stall. However, the shot isn’t focussed on filming Jesus so much as capturing the moment. In fact, as the camera weaves its way around, Jesus is only occasionally in shot. The result of this shot is that it captures the action, and chaos of the incident, in a way that no other Jesus film, either before or after, has quite managed. Considering this scene was created 6 years before Wells supposedly revolutionised camerawork with Citizen Kane, it is all the more remarkable. It also, albeit unintentionally, created documentary style footage, years before the documentary genre would be invented.
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, and to a greater extent the most recent Jesus film - Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ - Golgotha returns to the roots of the Jesus film genre and focuses on the immediate events leading up to Jesus’s death. Hence the majority of the dialogue focuses on the political machinations both within the Sanhedrin, and between the Jewish leaders and Pilate. The centrepiece of the film is arguably the conversation between Pilate (played by French star Jean Gabin) and Jesus, culminating in the former declaring "Ecce Homo" (behold the man), which was actually the original title for the film.
What is surprising is that despite this being the first Jesus film with sound, Duvivier focuses on these conversations, many of them fictional, and ignores nearly all of Jesus’s teaching. There are three main exceptions however. The first is at the culmination of the cleansing of the temple scene where Jesus offers his usual synoptic epitaph to the baying crowd. The action moves back to the disapproving Pharisees and follows their discussion, before cutting back to Jesus in mid-flow. We hear the well known dictum "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17 and parallels) but miss the first part of the confrontation. This is arguably the most interesting of the three pieces of "teaching" that are encountered as the third piece, Jesus words during the Last Supper, is rendered fairly unimaginatively.
What is curious about the tax question scene is the way it pre-supposes audience acquaintance with the story, and then uses that to give the impression of real time. More importantly, it also illustrates that which we are told is happening – that the question is being set as a trap under the watchful eye of the squabbling Jewish Leaders. It also causes the viewer to interact with what is presented, and fill in the gaps in a way that few Jesus films do – stimulating the imagination, rather than laying it all on a plate for a passive audience.
This technique is also another method of Duvivier emphasising the mystery around Jesus, and as a whole his divinity is presented very well. As noted above this starts with the mystery around his entry into Jerusalem – not only the way it is filmed but that the scene where Jesus is hailed as a king forms one of the bookends for the film. It sets the tone of this man being someone special. The vast crowd adds to the effect. Perhaps the most obvious device used is the miraculous events that are included. By restricting itself to the events of Passion Week the screenplay truncates a good source of the accounts of miraculous happenings around the life of Christ. Given how other films have included these and converted them into kitsch set pieces then this may very well be deliberate.
Instead of these grand spectacles Duvivier again presents three beautifully understated events, but invests them with a deep sense of transcendence. Incredibly, the first does not occur right up until Jesus’s arrest. Even then Duvivier shuns the more crowd pleasing healing of Malchus’s ear in favour of the obscure words of John 18:6. As Jesus identifies himself as the man the soldiers seek he simply says "I am he". John then records that as he did so the soldiers "drew back and fell to the ground" (RSV). As far as I am aware, in over 100 years of films about the life of Christ, no other film has shown this incident. Even the recent word for word version of The Gospel of John (2003), inexplicably left the soldiers standing despite the narrator reading out those very words. By contrast Duvivier shows a range of responses, with some soldiers falling, and others remaining upright, but he films it so astonishingly that it somehow captures the truly phenomenal nature of such an event.
Once he has been arrested Jesus is as usual passed from pillar to post, in a fashion that is broadly similar to many of the other depictions of Jesus’s death. There are however a number of places where the way Golgotha has been filmed really stands out. In particular, with The Passion of the Christ still on the cultural horizon there are a number of places where the comparison between it and Golgotha are especially interesting.
One of the flaws with The Passion of the Christ was that it failed to round out the Roman soldiers who sadistically inflicted so much suffering during the films two hours. Despite a shorter run time, Golgothaimparts the relevant scenes with a far greater degree of realism than The Passion, capturing, as it does, the sadism, but also the underlying insecurity, that drives such bullying. Harry Baur’s Herod typifies the approach. Herod’s ruthless mocking is interspersed by subtler indications that he is desperately trying to gain the approval of his all-too-pliant courtiers.
Duvivier also uses these scenes to commentate on the very real political events of that time. As the soldiers beat and ridicule Christ one of them mockingly salutes him with his arm fully aloft in a manner clearly reminiscent of the fascist and Nazi salutes. Golgotha was released in 1935 during the rise of Nazism, (the very month in fact that the notorious Nuremberg Laws were enacted). The following year the world would fawningly ignore the regime’s explicit racism and attend the Olympic games it staged as a monument to it’s own self-importance. Given all this then, such a salute could not have failed to go unnoticed and as such it offered a powerful critique of the Nazi movement. Historically speaking, the beating of Jesus has been a universally condemned act, even though Jesus’s Jewishness has largely been toned down to allow that to happen. The film plays on this by comparing the condemned Romans with the celebrated Nazis; beating and bullying Jesus, a Jewish man. Such interplay exposing the hypocrisy of the tacit approval of anti-Semitism which would continue for several years unchecked along the road to the holocaust. Too often Bible films have pandered to political ideologies. (DeMille’s pseudo-midrashic reworking of The Ten Commandments into a story that supported the US stance in the Cold War being only one example among many). Golgotha on the other hand (dangerously) challenges an ideology in such a way that it embodies the risky and prophetic spirit of its central character.
The film makes the effort, however, to show a range of reactions to Jesus’s torture. Whilst many in the crowd stand by to enjoy watching him whipped, it causes one onlooker to faint. Again, there is an interesting comparison to The Passion here. Golgotha shows the horror of it through the reaction of someone we can sympathise with, rather than the more "in your face" approach of Mel Gibson. Duvivier also shows the mixed reaction of the people to Jesus on the via dolorosa. Hassled both by the children throwing small stones at him and the sick who press for healing even as he stumbles towards the cross. Once there he is crucified, dies and is buried. The viewer is shown the sealing of the tomb from the inside, thus ending the main segment of the passion story as the film began – from Jesus’s point of view
Over the years, the resurrection has proved to be one of the most difficult scenes for filmmakers to portray, with most of the literal depictions sliding into kitsch. As a result some filmmakers have opted either to portray it more cinematically (such as Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ), or to replace the biblical episodes with extrabiblical scenes (The Passion of the Christ), or to leave it out completely (From the Manger to the Cross).
As with the earlier scene in Gethsemane, Duvivier manages to get it just right, skilfully combining the early accounts in Luke (the woman at the tomb, and the road to Emmaus) with the later events in John (appearance amongst the disciples, Thomas, and Peter’s restoration). In so doing, the viewer is given a unique position, having neither seen the risen Jesus like the majority of the disciples, but being too familiar with the story to be in any doubt about the truth behind their testimony (from a narrative point of view at least). Yet there is also something special about the first appearance of the risen Jesus as he materialises in the middle of the upper room. It is simple and effective, yet it also manages to capture the otherness of it.
It is a fitting end to the work, embodying as it does, the way Duvivier combines the ordinary with the extra-ordinary throughout the film. By downplaying the moments where many other Jesus films have opted to turn up the spectacle, he has invested them with a believability which touches the reality of the world in which we live.
3 Incidentally DeMille also delays showing us Jesus, and he makes us wait considerably longer. The similarities, however, are fairly superficial.
4 In fact, it appears that the film’s original release title was Ecce Homo, only being changed to Golgotha after it’s American release.
5 This also compares interestingly with The Passion of the Christ where we are seen the tomb opening from inside the tomb.
6 Unfortunately, some overly literal viewers have failed to grasp what Scorsese sort to do with his ending, and have accused him of leaving the resurrection out altogether.