• 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


    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    Jephthah's Daughter (1909)

    Having meandered in my last few blog posts I thought I really ought to get back on talking about Bible films again. I'm still working my way through the silent bible films I studied from the Joye collection almost a year ago now - not to mention those I saw back in 2009 for which I still need to write up my notes.

    The next couple are to be a pair of films about the little celebrated Hebrew judge Jephthah from Judges 11. It's a notoriously difficult text, not least because of what is arguably the Bible's "what the...?" moment. I've always wondered - and theologians have utterly failed to convincingly answer - what Jephthah thought was going to happen. So one of the main things that interested me about these films was whether they would shed any light on that particular issue.

    The answer, sadly, is, not really, but given that, as far as I'm aware, these are the only two films a=made about this story I thought it was worth me recording a few thoughts for posterity.

    The first film is Vitagraph's 1909 film Jephthah's Daughter. The version I saw had German intertitles so I was relying on my weak grasp of German and my knowledge of the story to help. It was fortunate with this first film that it stuck fairly close to the story from Judges. I've included all of the intertitles here as I needed to write them down at least and I thought there might be others who were interested. I've also provided a translation though it leans rather heavily on Google Translate. I should point out though that there are a few places where I may have made some errors in writing them down or some of the intertitles may have included errors. So without the means to verify the at present, here is the outline of the story with a translation of the intertitles as I recorded them suspected errors are marked with a *.

    To an extent, the opening title card rather gives the ending away. This is not going to be a happy film.
    "Jephthah's Tochter" eine biblische tragödie
    ["Jephthah's daughter," a biblical tragedy]
    A second card appears before the opening scene explaining the set up.
    Jephthah bereitet sich wieder die ammoniter zu streiten
    [Jephthah prepares to fight the Ammonites again]
    Jephthah arrives home hugs his daughter and immediately a group of Gileadites arrive. If you sense any annoyance on behalf of the daughter just wait until you see what happens later. Jephthah celebrates, presumably signifying his acceptance back into the Gileadites and heads off with his new friends leaving his daughter heartbroken. It's interesting how the film heightens the daughter's poor hand. Not only is she soon to end up as a human sacrifice to a God who consistently explains that he hates them, but she's also got abandonment issues.

    The next intertitle is perhaps the hardest to translate well:
    Jephthahs Abzug
    [Jephthah's departure]
    Other alternatives for "Abzug" are deduction (think tax, not Sherlock), withdrawal, trigger and vent. The problem here is that not only am I translating from a language I don't really speak, but also the occasion on which is was written is over a century ago. The Kaiserian use of the word may very well difficult significantly than from today. The reason I went with "departure" over the other eight possibilities that Google offers is that this is what we see in the very next scene. A procession moves off with Jephthah hugging his wife and daughter as he departs.

    The long dialogue between Jephthah/Israel and the (king of) the Ammonites is excluded so we cut straight to:
    Der Abend vor der Schlacht
    [The evening before the battle]
    Jephthahs Gelübde
    [Jephthah's vow]
    There's a brief shot of the GIleadite camp with Jephthah dispatching various orders, and then comes his infamous prayer:
    "O Herr, Giebst du die kinder Ammon in meine hände, se# will ich, was zu meiner haustüre mir entgegengehet*, wenn ich im frieden wiederkehre, dir zum brandopfern opfern."
    ["O Lord, (if) you give the children of Ammon into my hands, I want to sacrifice as a burnt sacrifice to you what comes to meet me on my doorstep when I return in peace."]
    One of the things that is interesting here is that the German (and as I understand it the Hebrew) doesn't clarify whether Jephthah is expecting one thing on his doorstep or several. The English translations always seem a bit awkward here and are pretty well divided between those that opt for "whatever comes out of my door" suggesting Jephthah expected an animal and was merely unlucky, and those which choose "whoever", implying Jephthah had already decided to sacrifice someone, it was just unfortunate that his daughter was quickest off the mark. In some ways the question is moot. Whichever of those best translates what he actually said, he was prepared to commit human sacrifice if it meant winning his battle. Put like that it sounds rather brutal (and I suggest it is) but then history is full of military leaders who have taken a risk that may mean sacrificing "friendly" human lives in the pursuit of a military goal.

    Were this story to be filmed again today, there's no doubt that a good deal of screen time would be dedicated to the battle where the tension would be ratcheted up. Here (again) the intertitles give things away for those who didn't know the story.
    Jephthah*s Sieg
    [Jephthah's victory]
    The ensuing battle scene is chaotic and very hard to follow. The next intertitle follows suit:
    Und als Jephthah wieder heim kehrte kam ihm seine einzige tochter entgegen
    [And as Jephthah returned home again, his only daughter met him]
    We're then shown Jephthah returning home as part of a victory procession. His daughter's appearance is very sudden and a crestfallen Jephthah has to explain his rash promise to his "lucky" daughter with a brief shot of the two in conversation splitting up the following two titles.
    Jephthah teilt sein Gelübde seiner tochter mit
    [Jephthah shares his vows with his daughter, but]

    Sie Aber bat ihren Vater ihr zwei Monate zu lassen um ihre Jungfrauschaft zu beweinen
    [she asked her father to let her two months to bewail her virginity]
    Jephthah heads home to explain things to his wife (and I really wish the Bible had recorded her reaction) whilst his daughter heads to the hills.
    Jephthah sandte seine tochter mit ihren gespielen zwei monate auf den bergen.
    [Jephthah sent his daughter, with her playmates, for two months in the mountains.]
    There's a brief clip of the daughter playing badminton with Table Tennis bats before they all say bye and she shuts a curtain so that not only can they not see her, but neither can we. The final intertitle occurs here and simply says:
    "Das brandopfer"
    ["This holocaust^"]
    Again the translation is interesting here, for this is one such word where I imagine the modern use is significantly different from the one from the time when the film was made. Then the word would naturally be understood as a burnt sacrifice, unpleasant, but with far less by way of connotation that the word "holocaust" has for us today. I've used the carat symbol to note that the same word is used above, but the modern meaning is far more powerful than it was then. That said there is something relevant in translating it with a modern translation. Jephthah's sacrifice should horrify us. There's no comparison to the actions of the Nazis in terms of scale, but in terms of letting misguided idealism shroud extremists from their inhumanity it's pretty shocking. It's depressing how many people consider this passage to be a fable warning us about making rash promises. Closer to the mark might be that it's an exploration of the lostness of humanity. If there is a lesson here perhaps it's that sometimes breaking a promise to God isn't the worse thing you can do - he might well prefer you to break a promise rather than follow through with it. Perhaps it just serves as a reminder as to how mired in the cultic religions of their neighbours Israel was at this point in history.

    The scene itself is clearly where the vast majority of the artistic decisions were made. There's a sacrificial altar table, a crowd. The daughter hugs her mother. Jephthah looks a bit put out though his daughter is not overly upset, reflecting her apparent willingness in the text to let her father see through his vow. Then Jephthah stabs her himself and lights the fire. The final shot though is dramatic as reproduced below as a Jepthah's daughter reappears as a ghostly apparition standing bolt upright. There's something very reminiscent of scenes of Jesus' resurrection / ascension from the early Jesus films. The daughter is clearly vindicated, but Jephthah himself is obscured from our view. Just as the story's eitiology only recalls the actions of the daughter not the father so in her cinematic light, he is cast into the darkness.Campbell and Pitts do not mention this film, but the BFI archive does include the following synopsis:
    The Biblical story of Jephthah's vow. Jephthah takes leave of his wife and daughter before setting off with his troops to fight the Ammonites. On the eve of battle, he vows that he will sacrifice to Jehovah the first creature to greet him, should he return victorious. The Ammonites are defeated. On his return, Jephthah is dismayed when the first creature to greet him is his daughter. On learning of her fate, she begs for two months' grace. Together they break the news to Jephthah's wife. The daughter plays with her friends during the two months' grace. Finally she mounts the sacrificial altar, and her father raises his dagger. He subsequently sets fire to the pyre, and the flames engulf her corpse. Her spirit appears above the pyre (536ft).
    At about 7 minutes long the film was made for Vitagrah (US) by co-founder J(im). Stuart Blackton. Blackton is remembered for Vitagraph's many Shakespearean adaptations, mercilessly mocked years later by his co-producer, and for being an industry spokesman. His many historical films were marked by a commitment to period detail and for humanising his characters. He also produced the better known Life of Moses a five reeler that began to be released later that same year.

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    • At 9:48 pm, April 12, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said…

      Interesting Blog. My name is BOB PAGE - From Indianapolis, Indiana-- Just curious. Learned of your BIBLE information. Would enjoy getting to know you PAGE clan.
      Thanks Titus 2:13 --- the REAL ONE jprpage@cheerful.com


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