• 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


    Monday, July 18, 2016

    INRI [Crown of Thorns] (1923)

    Robert Wiene will, rightly, always be best remembered for his 1920 expressionistic classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but by 1923 with his best work already behind him, Wiene turned his attention to the subject of Jesus. The result was INRI, released in some countries as Crown of Thorns which, whilst not the classic of three years previously, still maintained some interesting shots and the occasional set that wouldn't look out of place in Caligari's tortured imagination. The film was also somewhat innovative for the Jesus in film genre as it was one of the earliest to develop some of the other characters in the story, most notably Judas.

    Sadly no complete copy of this film has survived, and the two prints that do exist contain significantly different material from one another. Reinhold Zwick has penned an excellent essay on INRI and Der Galiläer (1921) in "The Silents of Jesus" (Shepherd, ed.) that includes an appendix detailing the different scenes in each of the two prints. Whilst these prints remain in their archives, a substantial proportion of the one held in the Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv (Berlin) has found its way onto YouTube. Its subtitles are in Czech and its time-stamp enables you to see where bits of the original have been chopped and there's at least one place where the original footage has been slowed down during their transition to YouTube. Nevertheless, it's this "popular" version that I'll discuss in the remainder of this piece.

    One of the things that's most memorable about both this film and Der Galiläer (1921), at least amongst Bible films, is their use of a sepia tint throughout. Other films had filtered entire scenes before but these two German films, which despite the difference in their given dates were actually circulating in far closer proximity to one another, were the first to use a consistent tint throughout. Here it gives the film the feel of night time, even during the scenes that are set during the day, and evokes some of that Caligari-esque feel. 

    This is further enhanced by the black vignette which softens the edge of the screen giving the impression that we are only seeing part of the action, that the scene exists beyond the edges of the frame. It makes the film seem more naturalistic as does the generally limited use of special effects and the use of light and particularly shadow.

    That said, neither of those points apply to the film's opening scene - a formalised nativity where the stables two walls and a pointed roof fit cleanly and evenly within the frame. After a while a double exposure reveals the star and a host of angels sitting on the roof. Whilst technically the shot is more complicated and executed more professionally than those from the 1905 Life and Passion of Jesus Christ the effect feels very much the same and clearly required the sort of static framing that so typified the very earliest Jesus films.

    However, visually this film owes more to Kalem's From the Manger to the Cross (1912) than it does to the early Pathé films. This becomes particularly apprent in the next scene of the boy Jesus in the temple. The scene is longer here than in the Kalem's film but the appearance of the child actor is incredibly similar as is some of the framing. There's a great high shot in there as well as the previously cosy scene of Jesus talking with the elders is suddenly disrupted by the frantic appearance of Jesus' mother. It quite literally gives a new angle on the cosy scene.

    Perhaps the moment that is most reminiscent of From the Manger is the scene from the house of Mary and Martha. Here we also have a Mary figure who sits cross legged at Jesus' feet. Whilst in the original Jesus faces just away from the camera, here he is facing sideways, but Mary's angle is practically identical and in both scenes she is dressed in black with a black sheet masking her hair and smiling serenely as she listens to Jesus, teaching.

    This is quite a major scene, starting with establishing shots which show a considerable crowd amassing before the shots inside which cover a number of incidents. There are a number if impressively large crowd scenes, even if they are where the a Youtube version most distorts.

    The most notable use of an establishing shot is at the start of the scene where Jesus welcomes the little children which starts when a young girl approaches him as he sits teaching Mary and the rest if the crowd. What's really surprising is a couple of shots of real intimacy. The first comes Jesus caresses the back of the child's neck, pulls her close and even rests his head against hers. Later he tenderly touches the head of another child.

    An even more strikingly intimate moment follows in the scene where a woman enters the frame to anoint Jesus's feet. As the woman slowly approaches Jesus Wiene places the vessel containing the nard in such a position that it draws the eye, even before she has approached Jesus. The action is filmed in close up with a surprising intimacy as the woman first stroke the perfume onto Jesus's feet and then wipes it away with her hair. I'm struggling to remember a film that actually shows both the use of a perfume to wash Jesus' feet and the use of the woman's hair to wipe away the dust/perfume mix. The scene is long and drawn out and perhaps given extra affection by the fact that the actress playing Magdalene and the actor playing Jesus were lovers at the time. (Zwick, p.219)

    The scenes of Jesus ministering are intercut with footage of Pontius Pilate in his house. Pilate is played by Werner Krauss who played the titular Dr Caligari in Wiene's famous film. There's arguably a certain amount of typecasting there, but here Krauss largely plays it straight. His Pilate is the, sadly typical, rational European, who is left somewhat bewildered by the fury felt towards Jesus by the Jewish leaders and their mob. Whilst INRI isn't quite as anti-Semitic as Der Galiläer (1921) it does resort to the same old stereotypes - refined, noble Romans vs irrationally seething, unphotogenic, gaudily-dressed Jews.

    This gulf between the two portrayals is heightened by Wiene's decision to do strange things with his actors' eyes. In some cases it's just make up. Zwick (p.222) talks about how Jesus and Magdalene's eyes "are painted with dark shadows". But in other places characters give wide-eyed stares and at one point Jesus even goes cross-eyed. Zwick (p.222) sees some of this as a drawing "heavily upon the traditional tormented Christ of Gothic art".

    Sadly this doesn't always work as well as, presumably, Wiene intended, and the later scenes lack the impact of some of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, it's an interesting approach and as a whole  it means that the film feels rather different from other Jesus films, both from this era, and the genre as a whole. Whilst it lacks the brilliance of Wiene's Caligari it is nevertheless and interesting film visually with a few striking and indeed memorable images.

    References to Zwick are taken from:
    Zwick, Reinhold, "Der Galiläer (Express-Film, 1921) and I.N.R.I (Neumann-Film, 1923): The Silence of Jesus in the German Cinema" in Shepherd, David J., (ed.) "The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)", Abingdon: Routledge 2016

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