• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Wednesday, February 03, 2016

    Der Galiläer (1921)

    Of all the silent Jesus films that I have reviewed for this blog Der Galiläer is the most wonderfully composed; it is also the one that most unmistakably reflects the anti-Semitism that was rife in interwar Germany. For many that is a reason to avoid it, but such a conclusion is naïvely wrongheaded. The atmosphere that grew up in Germany, and many other parts of Europe, was fed and watered by films such as these. The tragic conclusion of this trajectory should mean we take all the more notice of a 1920s German Jesus film not less. Is it any wonder that when The Passion of the Christ came out on 2004 most church leaders shrugged it off without reference to the shameful history of dramatic portrayals of Jesus’ last days?

    Der Galiläer is all the more pernicious for it's seductively beautiful images. The film cuts between artful close-ups and perfectly composed wide long shots. Shots such as the above mid-shot are few and far between. The close-ups are all the finer for being wordless, pausing for long enough to give proper consideration to what the characters are thinking. On one occasion we are even shown it as Jesus has a vision of the cross whilst praying in Gethsemane.

    In contrast the wider shots, often featuring hundreds of extras, are grand yet vibrant and chaotic. By the time Kaiphas whips up the Jewish crowd in the marketplace and leads them to forcefully appeal his initial decision, mob rule is very much in the air. Pilate’s fear is evident, his capitulation made all the more ‘understandable’ by the distortion.

    The other thing that is notable about the wider compositions is how they echo so much of Christian art. Whilst this is hardly uncommon in silent Bible films, the pace is a little more stately, the tone a little more graceful and the poses held for a little longer than is normally the case. Unsurprisingly Leonardo’s "Last Supper" is reproduced, but many other works are apparent too. Even for se of us that cannot name them, but know them when we see them. Yet even this has its dark side, suggesting continuity between the historic church and the depiction before us.

    The anti-Semitic elements build as the film goes on, but the focus on the crowd is there from the start. The film starts with celebrations on the street at the news that Jairus's daughter has been healed. Shortly after Jesus makes his triumphal entry to huge acclaim, his progress halted only to restore Bartimaeus's sight. The crowd follow Jesus the temple but are faced-down by Kaiphas and his high priests reasserting their traditional authority. Jesus heads away whilst the Sanhedrin schemes as to how to destroy him with Judas’ help.

    Visually the depiction of Kaiphas and these other Jewish leaders underlines what the film suggests throughout. Not only does the cameras shoot them from below allowing their faces to loom over the camera, but the actors themselves seem to comply with every anti-Semitic stereotype in the book. The actors distort their wizened features to arch their eyebrows, flare their nostrils and rub their hands. Even their headwear is comes into play, topped with horns suggesting the “children of the devil” accusation that has proved so troublesome.
    Following the Last Supper Jesus is arrested, tried and brought before Pilate, but when he fails to deliver the required verdict, Kaiaphas takes to the streets to whip up the crowd into a frenzy to pressure Pilate to giving them the verdict they want. As described above, the ease with which Kaiphas is able to manipulate the Jewish crowd, and the fear it evokes in a hardened Roman leader like Pilate is one of the most troubling parts of the film. The crowd remains on the verge of a riot all along the road to the cross, seeming only to disperse when the earth quakes and the temple curtain is torn in two. Curiously the actual crucifixion is particularly brief – far shorter than the scene where Barabbas is freed, or even than the road to the cross. The stronger emphasis on this scene – where Barabbas is called a murderer and yet still the massive crowd call down Jesus blood on them and their children – really does pose the question as to what the filmmakers intentions were.

    So it's good that the Bundesarchiv-filmarchiv have restored the film. If films about Jesus are to retain their validity, they need to face their chequered past.

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