The image is, of course, from DeMille's 1923 The Ten Commandments, but of all the silent films about the Moses story, and a good deal of those since, L'Exode is easily the most daring. Whereas DeMille stacked the pack, making Pharaoh's son a brat so that none of us minded when the finger of God bumped him off, L'Exode portrays him far more sympathetically. The result is a thought provoking and challenging film which makes us question which side we are really rooting for. By the end we are glad that Moses and the Israelites have left Egypt, but for all the wrong reasons. Our sympathies lie with the Egyptians and we are relieved to see the children of Jacob ejected from the land.
The film builds carefully towards this climax from its opening scene. Like DeMille's film the story starts between the ninth and ten plagues, In fact, one of the film's German titles was Zehnte Plage (Tenth Plague) - the other being Auszug Der Kinder Israels Aus Ägypten (The Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt). We open with an interior shot of a very elderly Moses consulting men who are presumably the elders of Israel. I say 'presumably' because not only are the intertitles are in German but the interior of the room (I was going to say palace) is sufficiently luxurious to leave the audience wondering which scene from the Bible they have just witnessed. The brilliant-white haired man whose matching beard almost reaches his waist could certainly be Moses, but the room is certainly not typical of a Hebrew slave. But if this is the palace then where is Pharaoh? Or even some in Egyptian dress?
But all becomes clear when those present in the room disband to instruct the Israelites on how to mark their door posts with lambs blood. This scene is again deserves some discussion, not least because it is taken as one long shot which pans back and forth from door to door, focussing in on doors at different depths. This must have been a relatively unusual use of the camera in 1910, but thematically it unifies the individual households as the camera moves gracefully from one to the next.
This panning shot is also fairly graphic, as the camera moves from door to door we see the throats of lambs being slit, their blood being drained off and sprinkled on the doorposts. On a single viewing it's difficult to work out whether or not these lambs were actually killed on set. Certainly movies in those says were not monitored by the American Humane Association and there were several instances of people being killed on set during a shoot. The blood is also flicked onto the doorpost using a hyssop branch rather than daubed as per The Ten Commandments (1956). Exodus 12:22 says only to "Strike" the door with the blood drenched hyssop, but elsewhere in the Torah (Lev. 14, Num. 19) it talks about using Hyssop to sprinkle blood as part of a ritual.
Next we move to inside Moses's house, which is clearly a different building from the room he is shown in earlier. Here he and his family gather to share the passover meal. Exodus has God calling for this meal to be celebrated at night, yet light streams into the room from an upper window. This may have been a mistake, or a theological statement about new light or a new dawn or such like. Either way, the resulting shot is stunning. The Bioscope basks in its "Rembrandt lighting". Certainly it was the most memorable shot in the whole collection of films, and thankfully the director was sufficiently aware of his achievement to linger on the short for us to fully enjoy it.
The scene is very much reminiscent of the same scene in DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments, only without Rembrandt's lighting: an unadorned room with only a plain table in the middle; various guests, including servants, joining in the meal; newcomers entering via the door in the wall on the right hand side of the camera. There is seemingly no other room in building and the camera stays largely at a distance with the length of the table crossing the width of the screen. Given that DeMille had always been a devout Christian, and his interest in films was such that he would make his first movie just four years later, it's more than possible that he saw this film and was, on some level, influenced by it, though perhaps only DeMille could take such a wonderfully composed shot and remove it's most striking element for the sake of biblical fidelity.
It's at this point that the film's emphasis moves from Moses and the Israelites to the Egyptians. We're introduced to Pharaoh's son but, in contrast to the 1923 DeMille version, he is shown sympathetically. Here is a normal child that one cannot help but warm to - a sense of connection that is immediately overshadowed by the knowledge that we know his fate. Perhaps even more unusually, as he begins to display signs of illness we see Pharaoh's tenderness toward his son, and the concern of his carers.
The son's death is followed fairly swiftly by a cut to the house of a miller where a similar scenario unfolds. The miller and his wife are concerned by their daughter's health, but having placed her on a chair he continues with his work. He's a big man pushing a huge millstone, yet the tension of the previous scene and the sickening sense that we know what is shortly to occur is heightened as the miller slowly grinds the millstone round one more revolution. At first he has is back to her, then his view of her is obstructed by the stone itself. By the time he returns to where he started the child has died. The grief is palpable, all the more on the day due to Stephen Horne's hauntingly evocative live piano accompaniment.
There's a wealth of symbolism here. Whereas Pharaoh sits at the very top of this kingdom, the miller sits at the bottom. Pharaoh was at least responsible for what unfolds: the miller is entirely innocent. His back-breaking work almost indistinguishable from that of the Hebrew slaves. As the camera first cuts to the scene it seems almost unimportant - as if an important character is about to enter and make an announcement, perhaps announcing the death of Pharaoh's son, or of children all over the nation. In contrast to the scene with Pharaoh's son, here, it only gradually dawns on us that this is the scene we are waiting for, and that therefore the little girl is also doomed. There's no doubt that much could also be made of the symbolic nature of his profession, going round in circles, crushing the grain and so on.
As if the emotional impact of these two scenes was not great enough, the next is a real sucker punch. In a courtyard, perhaps in Pharaoh's palace, two parents mourn their lost child. They are soon joined by two more, and then two more, and so on until the frame is crammed with parents mourning their lost children. It's the kind of scene that is utterly absent from both the Bible and from any other film version of this story, creating sympathy for the Egyptians, and causing believers to re-visit this story from the point of view of those on the other side. Horne accompaniment may have made it all the more poignant, but the sympathy for those on the losing side of this biblical narrative is certainly there amongst the visuals alone. The scene concludes with an intertitle that mentions the 430 years in Egypt and the 600,000 Hebrews that let Egypt during the Exodus.
But given these three scenes, it is hardly surprising that when the Israelites leave, they are almost thrown out, rather than leaving joyously with gifts from the Egyptians. Indeed they are quite literally shown the door. The scene is on a much smaller scale than the one from The Ten Commandments (1923) shown above and is relatively short. The film's abrupt ending, just as the Exodus begins, seems to reinforce the Egyptian perspective - there's no concern for how the Hebrews will fare now. L'Exode (Exodus) is not so much about the birth of one people group so much as the death of another.
The BFI synopsis suggests that either the start of this film was missing, or that I don't recall it and failed to write notes on it. Here is their entire summary:
BIBLICAL DRAMA. Moses warns Pharaoh; marking the Israelites' doors; the Passover feast; the death of the firstborn; the Israelites leave the city. No main title or first intertitle. Pharaoh sits, surrounded by his court. Four women bring in his son whom he kisses affectionately. A black guard announces Moses, who is always led by Aaron and followed by a group of Israelites. Moses foretells the tenth plague and leaves. Pharaoh embraces the boy (133). " Die Vorbeerereitungen zum Osterfest..." (149). Moses, with long white forked beard, seated indoors while Aaron kneels besides him, instructs the Israelites about the Passover (246). Street: man takes a dead lamb indoors while a woman holds a bowl of blood and a man marks doorposts with blood. Pan to Moses sprinkling blood on another doorpost. By a third door a lamb's blood is being drained (380). "Das Erste Osterfest..." (395). Indoors: A couple lay a table. The Israelites enter. Moses celebrates the first passover: he preaches and prays. A roast lamb is put on the table. Moses hands out food (714). "Die Zehnte plage..." (730). Pharaoh's son sleeps surrounded by harpist, mandolin player and fanwaver. Pharaoh enters, kisses him and leaves. The boy starts up, gasps and flops dead, arms outstretched (823). A man pulls two huge vertical millstones round a central post on a horizontal six foot millstone while his wife cradles their son. She joins her husband's work. The child wakes, chokes and dies (912). The dead firstborn are brought into the street by their wailing parents. Moses and the Israelites enter. Pharaoh tells them to leave (1050). " Der Auszug..." (1063). Outside the city gates: Pharaoh sits on a dais among a crowd. The exodus: an excited child runs out of the gates, followed by Aaron leading Moses, crowds of Israelites, a herd of goats and two camels (1171). Incomplete (1476ft). Note: The four surviving German intertitles have the Gaumont logo: a G in a ring of stars. They are numbered AL B 2375 2 to AL B 2375 5. Note: Also held: A 690ft viewing copy in faded colour 205627A. It consists of: Moses instructing Israelites; marking doors; Passover feast (133-582); A one foot glimpse of the black guard from the first scene; The exodus (1063-1171ft) The order on the viewing copy is currently B A C D