• 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, February 21, 2013

    Holofernes in Film

    Given the fairly one dimensional portrayal of Holofernes in the book of Judith, it's perhaps little surprise that he has rarely been fleshed out in film. The earliest silent films about Judith - Giuditta e Oloferne (1906) and Gaumont's Judith et Holopherne (1909) - portray him simply as a lust-driven tyrant; a piece of meat biding its time before slaughter.

    Things begin to change in D.W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (1913). Physically all three portrayals of Holofernes are very similar - a well-built, dark-haired man with a heavy, black beard who lounges on a couch whilst scantily-clad servant girls fawn in attendance. But some of the subtleties of the biblical account (for example his relative fairness in Judith 11:1-4) are also portrayed, not least because this is the first film to explain the events from Holofernes' point of view as well as Judith's. The film's intertitles explain that Judith finds him "noble", but more significantly that he ""had thoughts only for Judith - and he gave no heed unto the Dance of the Fishers by the artful women". Holofernes' thoughts are also shown visually during the dance. Griffith uses an iris to put the spotlight on Holofernes and cast the rest of the action into darkness, demonstrating his isolation from them and his single focus on Judith.

    Holofernes appeared in one more silent film - the Italian Giuditta e Oloferne (1928) - but then over thirty years passed before his next significant appearance in 1959 in another Italian production of the same name. The film was released elsewhere in the world under a variety of titles, including Judith das Schwert der Rache in Germany and Head of a Tyrant in the English speaking world. The film went still further in softening Holofernes' image. Whilst initially he is depicted as ruthless and debauched he falls for Judith and demonstrates tenderness. The transition is marked in a scene where Holofernes snaps "I should have killed you with the others", before gently holding her head and kissing her. Indeed in many ways the film is a variation on the Roman-Christian epics of the early fifties such as Quo Vadis where a good Christian transforms the heart of a Roman commander, only with a radically different twist at the end.

    A swathe of made for TV movies followed in the sixties, from the USA (1960), Argentina (1961), West Germany (1965 & 1966) and France (1969) with two European films reaching cinemas in 1979/1980 from Spain (Judith) and the former Yugoslavia (Judita), but the story has largely passed out of fashion despite its rich source material (packed with irony, humour, wordplay and suspense) and the seemingly obvious appeal for modern audiences (sex, power, violence, politics).

    One recent film, Quebecois filmmaker Eric Chaussé's 2007 short Judith has offered an interesting adaptation of the story. By limiting the action solely to Holofernes' sleeping quarters Chaussé strips him of the trappings of imperial power (servants, grand armour, luxurious furnishings) humanising him and making him more vulnerable. The actor (pictured) is also young, with softer features and seemingly more gentle. Shorn of his power Holofernes appears almost as a victim, even the way Judith climbs upon him implies her dominance, subverting the image of the would be rapist of Judith 12:12. The final shot is of Holofernes' execution, which is filmed from directly behind his head, an almost point of view shot which places the audience in sympathy with the Assyrian general. Chaussé's cinematography is utterly reminiscent of Caravaggio and Gentileshchi's paintings and gives the scene a fittingly dark, intimate and erotically-charged atmosphere.



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