• 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


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    Sunday, February 15, 2015

    Earliest Remaining Bible Film Now Online
    The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1898)

    I'm currently reading David Shepherd's "The Bible on Silent Film" and have been really interested, so far, by what I've read. Silent Bible films are one of the things I've discussed throughout the 9 year history of this blog going right back to some of my earliest posts in 2006. Those posts were spurred on by the discovery of a DVD on eBay of a couple of Jesus films, which purported to go right back to 1898 and 1900 respectively. Curiously though both seemed to contain scenes that I recognised from the 1902 film La vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, 1902).

    Dating that film is a difficult enough challenge. The earliest date for it seems to be 1902, but I've also heard 1905 and even 1908 cited (by Campbell & Pitts and Kinnard & Davis respectively) before. What I later learned was that Pathé used to put the various scenes together in a catalogue from which cinemas wishing to display them could pick and choose. The first tranche of scenes were released in 1902, but the catalogue was expanded over time with significant developments in 1905 and 1908. Indeed according to Kinnard and Davis, another version of this film emerged in 1914 under the title The Life of our Saviour and it seems that a version including some colour was also re-released in 1915 as both the titles Son of Man and Jesus of Nazareth and yet again in 1921 as Behold the Man!. That must have been a little bit like your friend inviting you around to play a great new video game they've just bought only to be presented with the original table tennis. The plot thickens still further because at some point someone took it upon themselves to get it hand-coloured (apocryphally by nuns) and it is this coloured footage that appears on the first commercially available DVD of the film.

    Shepherd's book doesn't solve all the questions that arise from this DVD, but in trawling through ancient copies of early cinema publications he is able to make a convincing case that the first Bible film was by Léar (a.k.a. Albert Kirchner) in 1897, simply called La Passion du Christ. It along with the other Jesus film from that year, The Horitz Passion Play are now both presumed lost. Similarly absent is Siegmund Lubin's 1898 The Passion Play and those three films are more or less joined in obscurity by The Passion Play of Oberammergau save from a 35mm fragment last seen in the George Eastman House archives by Kinnard and Davis.

    Which means that, according to Shepherd, the oldest extant Jesus film is the other film from 1898 The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ by George Hatot and the Lumières. Best of all is the news that the remaining footage of this film is available to watch and/or download for free from America's Library of Congress. Since they even allow you to embed it, I thought I'd break the habit of a lifetime and do just that, so here it is in all its glory:

    Where does this leave the claims of the film I have on DVD? Well, as I noted at the time,
    "a number of different actors are used in The Life of Christ. This and the fact that the style of the intertitles changes from those identical to The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, to others that look older, and less sophisticated, suggests that this film (and possibly The Death of Christ) are composites"
    But whereas then I thought this might have been the initial footage of Pathé's later The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, now I think it's various bits of film that someone has wrapped up altogether, in a similar fashion to the way someone has spliced together La vie de Moïse and The Life of Moses in the version in the Joye collection and indeed as they have combined other footage on the same DVD of a a couple of David films. And whilst I suspect some of the footage goes back to the same 1898 film, I'm not sure I trust the 1898 on the title card. After all, it's so prominent it feels a bit too much like the kind of selling point that someone would only conjure up sometime later.

    I'll discuss the actual film at a later date, but note for now how the shadows from the cross fall across the back wall rather than fall across the ground as might be expected.

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    • At 11:41 pm, February 28, 2015, Blogger Unknown said…

      This is monumental for me. I spent considerable space - an entire appendix, actually - in my Master's thesis on the 1902/1908/1898 film. This definitely correlates with a lot of my findings and deductions at that time, though I'd like to take a more detailed look at all of it, in light of this new information.

      And the 1898 footage! Yikes. I can't watch it just now, but you can be sure I'll be downloading and studying it. Thanks so much for this!


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