• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, June 25, 2009

    Caïn et Abel (Cain and Abel)

    Henri Andréani, Pathé, France, 1911, 5 mins
    I'm not going to be able to find stills for many of these silent films, so I'll use images from the Renaissance paintings instead. This is not entirely without merit. As I mentioned on Tuesday Judith Buchanan pointd out how these early Bible films will have been influenced, to some degree at least, by the paintings of the events they were portrying. This is Il Tintoretto from 1550-53. Thanks to Art and the Bible and Loving God Center for these.

    The opening scene of Caïn et Abel is a cramped shot of Cain and Abel arguing and almost coming to blows but for the intervention of Adam and Eve. It's a shot that's significant in a number of ways. Firstly, because much of this film is shot in a closer proximity than was standard for the time. The film is heavily marked with Pathé touches. Both its general 'look' and the style of the angels and the manner of their appearance etc. are all very familiar from The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ. But whereas those films stood at a distance as if the viewer were sat watching the production in a theatre, here there are a number of mid-shots.

    The claustrophobia nature of these shots, which may have been shockingly groundbreaking at the time, not only adds to the tension but expresses it in spatial terms. There's a real sense of cabin fever - these four people are the only humans in the world and they are starting to get on each other's nerves. The composition is interesting elsewhere as well, using foregrounding and backgrounding quite effectively.

    The opening shot is also significant because it introduces Adam and Eve into a story from the Bible in which they are not really involved. They are, of course, present in the narrative's prologue and epilogue, but their absence during the story itself has caused some scholars to suggest that the story itself has been incorporated, into the "J" source. It's notable, for example, that Adam's line grows from Seth rather than Cain.

    The third point of significance here is that all four memberd of the family are portrayed as cavemen, wearing animal skins - Eve looks like an archetype for Raquel Welch's One Million BC role for example - but also later we see Cain's murder weapon is a flint axe. For obvious reasons these four characters cannot really be located at a specific point in the accepted chronology, but [edit] Gen 3:20 describes God using animal skins to make clothes for Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden. (Thanks to Timothy D. Lee for reminding me of that one - see comments below). [/edit]

    What's striking, though, is the contrast with the Bible's early descriptions of Adam and Eve's attire - "and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." (Gen 3:7). Here, however, dead animal has usurped dead fruit leaves, as Abel's animal sacrifice will prove superior to Cain's fruits of the ground.

    Similarly, Cain is depicted as brutish, which is perhaps only to be expected, but also of low intelligence. Indeed, this is often used as a humourous device. And of course the timing is interesting given that the Cain and Abel story is currently doing the rounds in cinemas in Year One which is also a comedy.

    So all in all, it's interesting to watch how the narrative unfolds from this opening. The intertitles for this print were in German: there are so few copies of films of this age that you have to make do with what you have. Some of them followed the practice of citing actual scriptures. Gen 4:4-5, Gen 4:10 and Gen 4:14 are all cited. There's a brief scene guide at the bottom.

    God's rejection of Cain's sacrifice is shown by his sacrifice fire going out, whereas Abel's keeps on burning. IN contrast to the text of Genesis the murder takes place not in the field, but in the rock outcrop where the (attempted) sacrifices have just taken place. Cain goes and finds a flint axe and strikes Abel neither completely spontaneous, nor entirely premeditated.

    As soon as Abel dies Cain is wracked with guilt. He covers the the body with stones, as if making an altar or a monument. There was something very Girardian about this. Girard's theory about sacrifice, which approach the subject via anthropology, talks about mimetic desire (the mechanism by which someone else having something makes another person want it), which is present to a degree here here in that the two sacrifices take place at the same time and in the same shot, though Cain wanted to make the sacrifice anyway. But more significantly it talks about how human sacrifice used to happen to heal discord within the community, and, crucially, how the graves (or the memory) of the murdered / sacrificed individual becomes sacred, and revered. I'm not sure I've explained that very well, but the manner in which the body was covered - far more elaborately than was stricly required to cover the body, grabbed my attention.

    Of course God is not fooled, and an angel appears (accompanied by cardboard rays of light as in other Pathé films of the period, the line about Abel's blood crying out from the ground is given via intertitle and the body is revealed. Cain runs off, but then sees a vision of Abel's body, and then of the angel once more.

    What's interesting about this is that Abel's appearance seems to be a demonstration of Cain's inner torment. I don't think Abel's body is meant to be physically present anymore than the dagger is physically present in Macbeth. This is the first time I have seen such psychologising in an early film - aside from that expressed in the faces of the actors. Does it also suggest that the angel he sees is also in his mind?

    Lastly, there's quite a long shot at the end of the film of Cain dragging himself along the floor, through the narrow, muddy passageway between two rocks. It's fairly open to interpretation, but for me it symbolises both the journey he will undertake to Nod, and his now lowly status (he is dragging himself through the mud).

    The scenes are as follows:
    [Extra-biblical Episode - Cain and Abel argue]
    Cain and Abel's sacrifices - (Gen 4:3-4)
    Murder of Abel - (Gen 4:8b)
    God confronts Cain - (Gen 4:9-14)
    Cain flees to Nod - (Gen 4:15)
    Campbell and Pitts only mention this film is passing (p.5) as part of their discussion of the 1910 film Cain and Abel by Gaumon. They also mention a third film on this story, also called Cain and Abel made in the US the same year (1911) by Vitagraph. The summary from the BFI archive, which formerly cited the film as 1909 is this:
    The story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel and their parents, all dressed in skins, are standing around the camp fire. Cain argues with Abel but their mother, Eve, separates them and Adam sends him off (55). Cain and Abel both prepare to make sacrifices upon two stone altars. Abel sacrifices a lamb, which burns properly, but Cain's sacrifice of farm produce does not, and he throws it to the ground in disgust and envy. He makes threatening gestures towards Abel, who is praying at his sacrifice (129). Cain retreats a short distance and thinks about killing Abel, demonstrating how he will use his stone axe. Abel says a few words to him but when he turns his back Cain fells him with the axe, and covers his body with stone slabs (237). Cain is struck by lightning several times, and a shining ray appears from which an angel carrying a sword emerges. Cain cowers before the angel, who asks him what he has done. The angel points his sword at Cain, then causes the stones to fall from Abel's body. Cain rises and stumbles away (303). [Short section 297-298ft showing Cain rising to his feet, is repeated twice]. Cain clambers and stumbles over the rocks until he is stopped by a vision of Abel's body, which turns into the angel. The angel strikes Cain on the shoulder with his sword, and curses him, before disappearing (388). Cain crawls amongst the rocks, struggles through a wood, and falls to the ground (463). Blank. The end. (467ft. 35mm).

    Labels: , , , , ,


    • At 8:28 am, June 26, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…


      That's a touch spammy, but I suppose it is sort of relevant, so, for now, I'll let it stand. It'd be interesting to hear what you thought about some of these films as well though.


    • At 9:53 am, June 26, 2009, Blogger Witlessd said…

      Hi Matt. I was particularly impressed with the shot of Cain as a muddy, "bare fork'd animal" crawling through the rocks. No artifice at all here; very raw, very direct.

      There are certainly two Cain films in this period:- a Gaumont Film directed by Feuillade, Les Sept Péchés Capitaux: L’Envie; and the Pathé Caïn et Abel, directed by Andreani. I have a Vitagraph film in my notes too, but can't find it in the AFI records or IMDb. Here's the Moving Picture World review that I thought refered to it (11/11/1911): "The character of Abel is presented with suitable simplicity, but it is a question if that of Cain is not a little over-wrought; an excess of acting tends to exaggerate the manner of even the guilty one in a tragedy of this kind. The angel of the flaming sword is good thought [sic], and no profane handling of so delicate a personality is shown... The angels demand of Cain for the whereabouts of his brother, whose dead body throws off its stone covering when told “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” It is, perhaps, the best seen. It is wise that no attempt was made to interpret the “branding” of Cain; to finish the story with him facing the future under the curse is sufficient." Which sounds to me like an exact description of the Andreani film, even including Cain’s “excess of acting”. (Good to know that a reviewer could recognize that then as now.) But where does that leave the Vitagraph version? Did it exist at all? I'm very doubtful.

    • At 10:57 am, June 26, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Yes that shot was good wasn't it. The film had most of the best shots that we saw all day (oh to be able to re-watch a shot at a time).

      I'd agree that the review you quoted (thanks for that by the way) must be of this film (either that or the Vitagraph one is a total rip off). I had missed that the rocks flew off just as the "blood cries out to me from the ground" line was spoken.

      I suppose the Gaumont film you mention is the French Title for the one I mentioned above? Who knows?

      And it was great to get to meet you in person. One of the highlights of the day for me.


    • At 2:42 pm, June 26, 2009, Blogger Pastor Timothy D. Lee said…

      "[A]nimal skins for costumes seem strangely ill fitting no matter whose version of history you accept."

      Actually, according to the Biblical account, I believe animal skins would make sense. I'm not sure whether they looked cave men or not.

      According to Genesis 3.7 Adam and Eve sewed garments from fig leaves. After their conversation with the Almighty, He made clothes for them from skins, according to Genesis 3.20.

      It is conceivable that humans were still wearing animal skins during the events of Genesis 4.

    • At 10:19 am, June 29, 2009, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks Timothy, you are, of course, correct. I totally forgot about that verse! I've amended it above and noted your contribution.




    Post a Comment

    << Home