• 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


    Saturday, February 24, 2018

    Samson und Delila (1922)

    Samson und Delila is an Austrian-made silent by the Hungarian-born director Alexander Korda, one of two Samson themed films which were released in 1922 (the other being a British production directed by Edwin J. Collins). Flushed with the success of another historical epic The Prince and the Pauper (1922) Korda seemed like a natural choice to direct the film - the first made at the Rosenhügel Film Studios - but the film's subsequent failure marked a temporary downturn in his career.

    The success of Griffith's Intolerance (1916) inspired a string of biblical films which mixed a 'modern' story with a biblical one, including Cecil B DeMille's first biblical picture The Ten Commandments (1923) and  Carl Dreyer's Blade af Satans bog (Leaves from Satan's Book, 1920) cotinuining into the early sound era with Noah's Ark (1929). Here the film combines the modern story of an opera star, with he biblical tale of Samson and Delilah. Early in the film the modern day star Julia, seeking inspiration for her new role as Delilah, seeks out the advice of an old rabbi she knows and he begins to tell the first of two major sequences set in ancient Israel.

    What is particularly interesting about the film is the way it represents the basic story from the Bible in four distinctly different ways. On the first level there is the literal text from Judges which is presented on numerous slides throughout the production complete with chapter references. Whilst this isn't word for word, certainly large chunks of the biblical text are placed on screen.

    The second level is the biblical story sections of the film. Whilst these are intercut with the largely 'biblical' intertitles, they also deviate from the text in significant ways. In particular the first of the two biblical sections is largely dramatic licence which is somewhat surprising given that it is meant to be the rabbi's recounting of the biblical stories.  His account starts with Delilah being picked out from a slave market en route to becoming the next queen of Philistia (or at least part of it). The setting quickly switches to Gaza, which is not only already in Israelite hands, but is now also on the verge of being re-conquered by the Philistines. But Samson rebels, throws a rock killing numerous Philistine soldiers before ripping off the gates (of his own city?) and using them as a shield as he carries Deilah off to Hebron.

    In the modern section of the film the story operates at two further levels. The modern character, Julia, (played by María Corda, who also plays Delilah) is starring in an opera as Delilah, presumably Camille Saint-Saëns's "Samson et Dalila". Whilst footage of the opera itself is only momentary it is nevertheless significant.

    The fourth and final level at which the story is represented is that of the semi-allegorical modern day story, which begins to unfold in the second half of the film. Following a disruption at the opera's opening night, a Russian prince (who also doubles as the king of the Philistines) persuades Julia to give a special performance on board his yacht. However, upon arrival she realises the prince is to be the only person in attendance, which, unsurprisingly, Julia finds creepy and so refuses to perform.

    The tension of the situation is heightened when the ship's crew discover the lifeboats have been cut loose. Moments later they find a terrorist has boarded the ship and is warning them that he has hidden a bomb on board which he intends to detonate in the near future. Armed with her newly-acquired knowledge of the story of Samson and Delilah, Julia decides to try and seduce the terrorist in the hope that he will reveal the whereabouts of the bomb, and it's here that the film cuts back to its second ancient sequence.

    This time the material is more firmly biblical and covers Delilah's betrayal of Samson, his subsequent imprisonment and his final 'victory' over the Philistines. What is most interesting, however, is the way that this section has been set in context by the modern terrorist story. The parallels between Julia / the terrorist and Delilah / Samson highlight that Samson's final act of destruction, from a Philistine perspective at least, is essentially a terrorist act - the ancient equivalent of a suicide bomb. Whereas Exum dismisses the way the "two storylines are not particularly well integrated" (84), I would argue that this is its strength - the re-contextualising of a story where a Hebrew hero has traditionally been celebrated for killing thousands of innocent people.

    The film's treatment of Delilah is particularly striking. Firstly she is the film's central character. The camera repeatedly frames her, rather than Samson, as the shot's focus. It is also significant that María Corda plays both Delilah and Julia whereas different actors play Samson and the terrorist, and the film is far more interested in developing Delilah into a three-dimensional character than it is in doing so to any of the male characters. The two main interpretations of Samson are very much a blank canvas.

    In contrast the film's portrayal of Delilah is far more complex, not least because of the tension between the film's images; the German intertitles spoken, theoretically at least, by the rabbi; and their English translation (at least on the version I have). The opening title is "Whilst Delialh was still a child..." accompanies her being sold into slavery, but it is clear she is already a grown women.

    Soon afterwards another intertitle describes her as "Wollüstig und tot jeder liebe, ausser der gemeinen, schloss sie sich selbst aus, von allem, was gut war auf Erden". The English translation of this is given as "Wanton and dead to all love except the sordid, she shut herself out from all that was good on earth", but this reflects more harshly on Delilah than the original German and is accompanied by such shocking behavious as stretching and taking a shower. The next intertitle says "Und ihre Seele war schwärzer als die Nacht Ägyptens" ("And her soul was darker than the Egyptian Night"), but cuts to Delilah playfully splashing in a fountain.

    Whether this disparity was the original intention, or indicates the producers changed the tone of the original seqeunce, or represents a sharp change in values since 1922 is anyone's guess, but whilst the intertitles seek to portray Delilah and Julia (who is called a "primadonna") in a bad light, she comes off rather better from the images alone. Later in proceedings the film seemingly attempts to rehabilitate Delilah to a certain extent, even portraying her as a victim in a later scene where Samson begins to strangle her. Exum also notes how the two main characters have their "roles reversed in the ancient and modern stories, for it is the Samson figure Ricco who turns out to be the deceiver" (Exum 84). That said it is hardly a positive portrayal even on a visual basis alone. There are many negative aspects to the portrayal and in both stories the Samson figure triumphs over her / her people.

    There are two other key points to make regarding the film's visuals. Firstly, whilst the sets, most notably in Gaza, are fairly impressive (and were apparently very costly) they owe far more to Cabiria (1914) and Intolerance (1916) than historical likelihood. Even if the film's assertion that Gaza were in Jewish hands at the time of Samson were to be accepted, it seems highly unlikely that it would feature pagan imagery so prominently on it's great walls.

    The film's other notable visual feature is the variety of grand staircases going up and down the middle of the screen in scene after scene. Whilst this certainly emphasis again the size of the sets it also recalls the angels going between Heaven and Earth on Jacob's ladder as well as the theme of redemption which runs throughout the film, as well as the rise and fall of the Philistines and Israelites. It also splits the screen into two echoing the conflict felt at various points by different characters. Not withstanding the meaning of these image, many of them are strikingly composed.

    These victories aside, from a technical angle Samson's victory was apparently a complete disaster (pun absolutely intended). Campbell and Pitts tell a tale about the destruction of the temple "which would not tumble under the might of Samson", but then collapsed under it's own weight "while the cast and crew were on a lunch break" (14).

    Despite the film losing "a great deal of money for its backer", in the long run, things worked out well for Korda. After periods in Berlin, Hollywood and France he settled in Britain, but after his success with 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII he focused more on production ultimately working on an array of major British films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Third Man (1949) and Richard III (1955) and becoming a major figure in the Rank organisation.

    You can watch this film, with German intertitles and Spanish subtitles on YouTube

    Campbell, Richard H. and Pitts, Michael R., (1981) The Bible on Film: A Checklist, 1897-1980, Metuchen, N.J., & London: The Scarecrow Press.

    Exum, J. Cheryl (2016) "Samson and Delilah in Film" in Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda (ed.), The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film. vol. 1, 83-100, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

    Shepherd, David J. (2013), The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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    Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973): Schönberg's Techniques

    This is part 3 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1965 Covent Garden performance in London.
    Given the particular manner in which Schönberg selects, edits and adapts the biblical material it's temptingly simple to concentrate solely on the words of the opera's libretto and not consider what he is trying to achieve with his music. Yet clearly, particularly for an experimental and pioneering composer such as Schönberg, his unique approach to the opera's composition is hugely significant. Indeed, as Steiner puts it, "it is difficult to conceive of a work in which music and language interact more closely than in Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (40)." Indeed he even goes as far to suggest that it is "impertinent to write about the opera if one is unable to analyse its powerful, immensely original musical structure" (Steiner 40).

    Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism
    Much of this relates to Schönberg's use of twelve-tone atonal serialism. This broke away from the traditional method of composition where a piece of music prioritises a particular note as the "key". Instead it sought to give all 12 notes in an octave equal footing. Schönberg had been experimenting with atonality as early as the 1910s, long before "Moses und Aron", but this particular form of it developed in the early 1920s, and it rarely made such a key contribution as it does here.  Of course, there are various other techniques which he uses to impart meaning to the work. It is, therefore, well worth recalling Wörner's observation that “(I)t is not the text, but the score...which gives us the key to Aaron’s character”, applies to the work in general (83).

    There were a number of different factors that led Schönberg to develop twelve-tone serialism. On the one hand, his belief that tonal music had lost its capacity to produce the tension necessary for musical meaning" had driven him towards atonality in the first place (Batnitzky 2001: 10). However, he felt that what the existing forms of atonal music lacked was a "firmer structural basis" (Reti 62). A third problem was that "'atonal' music no longer led to the resolution that would create melodies as western music had come to recognize them" (Batnitzky 2001: 10). The tension that produced musical expression had been lost in early forms of tonality due to this lack of order.

    The result was Twelve Tone Atonal Serialism, an organised tonality which arranges all twelve notes into a strict order (or 'series') and then derives the melodies from that. As Reti explains "(t)o replace one structural force (tonality) with another (increased thematic oneness) is indeed the fundamental idea behind the twelve note technique" (63). "The series thus provides a coherent framework whose structural functions replace those of traditional tonality...By seeking to create melodies using serialism, Schoenberg aimed to reinstate the tension necessary for musical expression that tonality had lost.” (Batnitzky 2001: 10)

    The key ideas in all of this, then, the sense of order, the sense of unity and the sense of equality between differently pitched notes fitted well with the religious ideas Schönberg wished to explore. However, whilst these ideas could be embraced by a number of major religious philosophies, Schönberg also saw his work not only as of Judaism, but indeed advancing its cause. His experiences with anti-Semitism had convinced him of the need to embolden his people, who he realised would never be accepted by the German people, and ultimately to argue for their unique place in the world. Again this was as much about the music as it was about the libretto as Steiner makes clear:
    “By introducing into music, whose classical development and modes seemed to embody the very genius of the Christian and Germanic tradition, a new syntax, an uncompromisingly rational and apparently dissonant ideal, Schoenberg was performing an act of great psychological boldness and complexity. Going far beyond Mahler, he was asserting a revolutionary—to its enemies an alien, Jewish—presence in the world of Bach and Wagner. Thus the twelve-tone system is related, in point of sensibility and psychological context, to the imaginative radicalism, to the ‘subversiveness’ of Cantor’s mathematics or Wittgenstein’s epistemology.” (Steiner 42)
    The result is a work that "is technically more demanding than any other major opera" (Steiner 41). Performers from the 2014 Welsh National Opera production described it as "fiendish" noting how the "concentration levels required are immense, if you lose concentration for a second you can be gone for pages" (Opera on 3). For Steiner "the quality of the religious-philosophic conflict requires from the performers and producer an unusual range of insight and sympathy (Steiner 41). It is worth repeating an extensive quote from Louise Ratcliffe, a member of the chorus from the Welsh National Opera to give an insight into the difficulty in performing the piece:
    "There’s no melody and that makes it very difficult. The only thing I can compare it to, is if you’re an actor learning a script in English, but all of the lines have English words in them but they don’t make a proper sentence so you have to learn each word individually because you can’t just think of the sentence, and then you’ve got two acts like that, and then you’ve got six different lines all doing different things and then you’ve got to put it all together.” (Opera on 3)
    The complexity faced by performers is a result of “the vast creative opportunities inherent in serial composition” (Johnson 3). The absence of a key means that the absence of the kinds of melodies that are typical of western compositions and the need to vary the rhythm and octave of each note means that the next few notes are usually difficult to predict. As Wörner explains “Each single note may appear within the range of any octave... furthermore, the rhythmic combinations in which the notes may be grouped, are unlimited, the number of possibilities becomes well-nigh inexhaustible” (93).

    For Johnson, “twelve-tone serialism emerged as a method of bringing order and structure to the world of atonality. Schoenberg's new compositional technique is built on the systematic ordering of all twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale rather than any sort of tonal hierarchy” (18). Each composition is based on an initial 'tone row', an specific ordering of the twelve chromatic notes where each is used only once. The tone row is then repeated throughout the opera, but rhythm, octave and the length of each note can be ordered. It is also possible to make other changes to the way that pattern appears, such as playing them in reverse order (called 'retrograde' transformation), or inverting them (so that going down two notes in the original tone row equals going up two notes in the inversion). Also because the central idea is to do with how the notes relate to the initial note, that initial note can be of any pitch, so long as those that follow it are shifted up or down by the corresponding number of notes.

    Perle summarises twelve-tone serialism as having four main characteristics:
    1. The row is a specific ordering of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (without regard to octave placement).
    2. No note is repeated within the row.
    3. The row may be subjected to interval-preserving transformation - that is, it may appear in inversion, retrograde, or retrograde-inversion, in addition to its "original" or prime form.
    4. The row in any of its four transformations may begin on any degree of the chromatic scale, in other words it may be freely transposed. Transpositions are indicated by an integer between a and 11 denoting the number of semitones: thus if the original form of the row is denoted P0,then P1 denotes its transposition upward by one semitone. (Perle 27)

    It is also worth pointing out that, in an orchestral situation such as with an opera, the different parts of any sequence can be performed by any of the instruments, so one instrument might begin the series of twelve notes, another might continue it and another might complete the row.

    The Tone Row
    However, whilst this is the musical basis for the opera, one of the techniques that Schönberg applies is for the initial row to become 'distorted' as the opera goes on. Deviations from the original tone row, aside from the variations outlined by Perle, are possible, and indeed allowable, particularly if making a point, but Schönberg reckoned this ought not to happen until “the later part of a work, when the set had already become familiar to the ear” (Schoenberg and Stein: 226)

    This is why the point at which Schönberg begins the narrative is particularly significant. By beginning just as God is about to speak to Moses for the first, and most decisive time, means that the opening notes - the twelve notes that define the tone row upon which the whole opera is written - come from the voice of God, expressing his desire to communicate to humanity. "Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God" (Batnitzky 2001: 11). As Johnson notes, “the tone row becomes a character in-and-of itself, transforming and shifting to mirror dramatic events and becoming a driving force throughout the opera” (Johnson 1).

    Whilst Batnitzky seems to include allowable variations within his use of the term 'distortion' he nevertheless summarises how Schönberg uses this technique to create meaning.
    "However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted. The distortion of the notes in 'Moses und Aron'...reaches its height in the character of Aron, to reflect the implicit tension that arises in the finite human's desire to know the infinite God. The distortion of the notes results from the notes representing God's self” (Batnitzky 2001: 11).
    "Aron's presence in the opera is marked by yet a further distortion of the original series that comes with God's communication. The difference between Aron's distortion and the distortion that comes from God's own speaking is that Aron's distortion actually verges on tonality. Aron's distortion involves chords with intervals of thirds and sevenths, intervals closely associated with traditional tonality" (Batnitzky 2001: 13).
    In other words, God's message, his self-communication if you will, is perfect and defines the basis for all that follows, but as Aron tries firstly to understand it, and then to communicate it to his people, before lastly attempting to get them to accept it, the music deviates more and more from the tone row that God's voice initially established. As Aron compromises God's message more and more, the more the music breaks the rules of twelve-tone serialism.

    Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang
    In contrast, to his treatment of Aaron, Schönberg uses another specific technique to bolster his characterisation of Moses. Taking seriously Moses' admission in Exodus 4:10 that far from being eloquent he was actually "slow of speech", Schönberg does not have Moses sing (except for one line).1 Instead he delivers his lines in a style that is neither spoken nor sung, but is somewhere in between. This 'in-between' style is known variously as either sprechstimme or sprechgesang, where the former is closer to speech and the latter to singing. On the score to "Moses and Aron" his notes have a pitch, that is a place on the stave, but instead of beginning round notes, they are marked by crosses.2

    According to Sir John Tomlinson, who has played the role of Moses numerous times since 1999, and will be reprising it in Dresden later this year, there "is a continual tension between how much this part should be sung and how much it should be spoken. Now if he [Moses] were completely normal and fluent on the opera stage, Moses would be singing the whole role, but he isn’t. He is disabled to some extent, psychologically and physically. He is not fluent in speech” (Opera on 3).

    This contrasts strongly with Aron who "has a gift of fluency, which is readily apparent in his agile bel canto singing style” (Goldstein 155). As Batnitzky puts it “Aron sings while Moses speaks. This has the obvious effect of associating Aron with beauty and Moses with thought” (2001: 13). It's an effective way of highlighting one of the key details we know about Moses that most dramatic portrayals leave out. It does however mean that the opera does not translate well into other languages and so is best appreciated in the original German. As Steiner observes “To alter the words— their cadence, stress, tonalities— as must be done in translation, is tantamount to altering the key relations or orchestration in a piece of classical music.” (Steiner 42)

    Schönberg's use of sprechgesang is also a good example of another key element of the piece: the interplay between opposites. In an opera where everybody else sings, Moses is only given “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83). Tomlinson cites various examples of such "struggle and tension between opposites" including the "musical opposites of the twelve tone system versus tonality" and "the religious idea of the purity of God versus the profanity of the orgy scene in the second act" (Opera on 3). Clearly the characters of Moses and Aron are in some sense opposites, though, interestingly, some productions have tried to physically portray them as similarly as possible to make them appear like opposing forces within the same personality. At the same time, it is also important to note that by making the role of Moses “a speaking role; the proclaimer of the idea, significantly, is denied song” (Wörner 83).

    Sixes and Twelves
    For Wörner, it seems "that some mystical number-symbolism is at the back of Schoenberg’s music, as it is of Bach’s" (88). Indeed David Poutney has said, that for Schönberg, “music is maths plus mysticism” (Opera on 3).3

    This interest in numbers affects the work in a number of different ways. It is notable, for example, that the title of the piece "Moses und Aron" is twelve letters long, when the natural German title ("Moses und Aaron" would be thirteen. Whilst most scholars take the view that this is due more to Schönberg's superstitious beliefs about the number thirteen, it seems likely that the idea of a twelve lettered title for a work of twelve-tone serialism was also a factor.

    The atonal nature of the piece and its emphasis on the twelve notes, make the importance of the number twelve clear, but it also appears that the number six has a certain significance within the work. As Wörner observes "Six notes, twice three, are contained in the symbols of divine will. Six solo voices form the (sung) voice of God; a six-part speaking chorus forms the voice from the Burning Bush that conveys the biddings of the divine will” (89).

    But Wörner  sees additional significant uses of the number six. “Throughout the opera, the major sixth symbolizes the people of Israel;” (72). Furthermore, "(t)he major sixth is characteristic of God’s promise to the people, while the minor sixth a kind of inflection of it, and as such specially characteristic of Aaron, with his exuberance, his emphatic intensity and his thinking in images”. (74). For a while, “Aaron still tries to mediate (vacillation between major and minor sixth)" (72), but ultimately in "the songs of jubilation (‘Joyous Israel!’) which precede the worship of the Golden Calf, the sixth is no longer to be found;” (72).

    Ultimately, then, Schönberg uses a number of techniques to enhance the meanings inherent within his opera, most significantly the way he uses the twelve note atonal serialism and in particular the tone row, Moses' use of Sprechstimme / Sprechgesang and the use of the numbers six and twelve. But beyond these issues relating to his themes in this piece, the work has a broader significance. As Steiner concludes "Schoenberg has deliberately used a genre saturated with nineteenth-century values of unreality and modish display to express an ultimate seriousness. In so doing he reopened the entire question of opera.” (41). His opera was not so much an attempt to create a historically sound portrayal of its two protagonists, but an exploration of the tension inherent in the idea of an eternal, unique, and inconceivable God seeking to communicate with humanity.

    1 - The line Moses sings falls "at the conclusion of initial discussion with Aaron, in a plea to 'Purify your thinking'” (Goldstein 157).
    2 - It is important to note as Laurence Cole, one of the performers from the Welsh National Opera production, does, that “the rhythm is almost as important as the pitch”. They apparently worked for hours at a time just practising the rhythm (Opera on 3).
    3 - Poutney is the creative director at Welsh National Opera who performed this piece at various locations across the UK in 2014.

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2001). Schoenberg's Moses Und Aron and the Judaic Ban on Images. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 25. 73-90.

    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.

    - Johnson, William E. (2015) Tone Row Partitions in Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" The Volk Partition and the Zwischenspiel Partition. Butler University Graduate Thesis Collection. 264. Available online at

    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq

    - Perle, George (1991) Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    - Reti,Rudolph. (1958) "Tonality, Atonality, Pantonality: A Study of Some Trends in Twentieth Century Music." Rockliff, California: University of California Press.

    - Schoenberg, Arnold and Stein, Leonard (1975) Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. New York: St. Martin's Press

    - Steiner, George (1965) 'Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron”' Encounter (June), pp.40-46.

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.

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    Saturday, February 10, 2018

    Samson (2018)

    Throughout the history of the Bible on film six stories have predominated: Jesus, Moses, David, Lot, Noah and Samson. In particular, during the two golden eras of biblical films, in the 1920s and the 1950s/1960s each of these stories received a major film release. Recently we've been seeing a bit of a revival in biblical films and, unsurprisingly, these same stories have again proved popular. The Passion of the Christ (2004), Noah (2014), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) are self explanatory. 2009's Year One, whilst not a serious reinterpretation, was nevertheless a big screen adaptation of the story of Lot. 1985's epic King David is perhaps a bit too far in the past and recent TV adaptations have not proved successful, but nonetheless the continuing interest in the story is palpable.

    It's not entirely unexpected, then to see a new version of the story of Samson returning to cinemas. It's not quite the Hollywood epic that Noah and Exodus were, but nevertheless it's opened at an impressive number of screens across the US.

    Samson, directed by Bruce MacDonald is the latest bible film from Pureflix, the faith-based producer and distributor who also run a Christian version of Netflix. Whilst five years ago they produced the more modest Book of Daniel they went on to have greater success with God's Not Dead and the subsequent sequels, and an inventive adaptation of Lee Strobel's book The Case For Christ.

    The latter films were criticised for being a little too heavy on the proselytism. The Times' Kevin Maher dismissed The Case for Christ as "profoundly silly Christian recruitment propaganda masquerading as newsroom drama" whilst The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber criticised the way God's Not Dead "stacks the deck shamelessly in defense of its credo".

    The story of Samson though is a different matter. Whereas the story behind both of the above films were essentially adversarial, being based on debate and controversy, this is a more conventional narrative. The religious element of the story is upfront and to some degree unavoidable (though numerous 60s Italian 'Samson' pepla managed it), but not necessarily evangelistic. I think most critics will find Samson, better in this regard, if only because the point it's trying to make is not quite so painfully obvious from even before the film starts.

    As a narrative, the film sticks fairly closely to the biblical narrative. Samson (Taylor James) has grown up knowing he has a calling from God. Before to his notorious affair with Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) he wrestles a lion to death, rips the city gates off the walls at Gaza, beats up the Philistines with a donkey's jawbone and gets married to a different Philistine woman. At the same time the film creates a couple of other side stories to bring the story more in line with modern storytelling.

    Firstly it portrays Samson as someone who is struggling to accept God's call. Whilst this is a fairly common device in biblical films, here instead of merely embellishing the biblical portrayal, it actually seems to run contrary to it. The biblical Samson is an impulsive hothead who is as likely to tie up foxes and set fire to their tails in anger as he is to give his big secret away to his untrustworthy girlfriend because he's feeling warm and fuzzy.

    In contrast this Samson resists the call to become a 'judge' because "we need peace". The violence in the story is not so much down to his unpredictable nature as God's will as his father Manoah (Rutger Hauer) reminds him. The film's Samson is "chosen by the living God to be his hand of vengeance." When told "it's his will", Samson retorts "but it is not mine."

    Given the film is most likely to prove successful with a conservative audience, it's not hard to read Samson as a kind of idealised NRA archetype of a responsible gun holder. He has all the means to kill at his disposal, but is extremely reluctant to use them. In contrast, the biblical Samson is more like the kind of irresponsible type that the left like to point to - constantly teetering on the edge of another violent outburst.

    The other major sub-plot revolves around father-son conflicts of a different kinds between the Philistine King (Billy Zane) and his slimy, usurping, son froPrince Rallah (Jackson Rathbone). Whilst Zane is Samson's adversary, he seems to have little idea how to defeat him. For all his son's conniving he seems to be the only man who is using his head, even if he is ultimately undone by his own self-satisfaction.

    Another major difference between this film and the God's Not Dead/Case for Christ films is the sheer scope of Samson. Both the costumes and the size of the cast are far grander than those previous films. echoing historical epics old and new. Some of the overhead shots are fairly impressive, certainly for a faith-based film. The film may have its flaws, but a lack of budget isn't one of them.

    Only time will tell if any of this proves popular enough with audiences to become something of a hit. One of the reason's DeMille's 1949 version of the story proved such a big hit was the way its display of human flesh so brazenly contrasted with the modern-day, fully-dressed dramas of its day. Not dissimilarly Samson is a decisive breakaway from Pureflix's previous offerings. Certainly they will be hoping that James's muscles, combined with a generous helping of action sequences will give Samson a broad appeal. Whether it can draw the kind of audience that Noah and Exodus: God's and Kings did so that it can round out my theory, remains to be seen.

    Please note, this article is not a review of the film. I will hopefully get around to writing that at some point in the future, but given the various other projects I have on at the moment, I imagine it could be some time.

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    Thursday, February 08, 2018

    Moses und Aron (1973):The Narrative

    This is part 2 of a series of posts about Straub and Huillet's film adaptation of Schönberg's opera "Moses und Aron". You can read them all here. Still from the 1957 Zürich stage production.
    Schönberg's libretto for "Moses und Aron" takes a highly selective approach to the story of Moses. Many of the most iconic scenes are excluded in their entirety. Moses' birth and childhood is excluded, his conflict with Pharaoh is absent, even the parting of the red sea/sea of reeds is omitted. “The emphasis here...accounts for the absence of those aspects of the biblical story which have little to do with revelation and communication - for example, Moses’ birth, his confrontation with the Pharaoh, and Mosaic legislation (Goldstein 155).

    Instead the film starts fairly late in the story, with Moses facing the burning bush at the moment God speaks to him (Ex 3-4). There is no build up, nor even any setting of the scene, we're not even shown Moses spying the bush burning from afar (Ex 3:2-3). The first sounds we hear are the sound of God. This moment is crucial from a musical point of view however, as the 12-note tone row upon which Schönberg bases the opera's music all derives from God's voice as variation and distortion. As Batnitzky explains:
    “The opera begins with a series of notes that express God’s presence at the scene of the burning bush.  These opening notes are the only text-expressive idea or theme dominating the entire opera.  However, with God's communication of God's self to Moses, the notes begin to sound distorted.  Schoenberg utilizes the purest form of his twelve-tone system, the opening notes through which the entire Opera is developed, to represent God.  He uses the distortion of the notes, which, as we will see, reaches its height in the character of Aron, to reflect the implicit tension that arises in the finite human's desire to know the infinite God.  (Batnitzky 2004: 6)
    Moses perceives God as "Einziger, ewiger, allgegenwärtiger, unsichtbarer und unvorstellbarer" ("Unique, eternal, omnipresent, unperceived and inconceivable") and hears God tell him to free his people ("Du mußt dein Volk daraus befrein!"), though it is not entirely clear as to what this means. When Moses expresses his concern that he will not be believed, God promises him that he will perform miracles ("Vor ihren Ohren wirst du Wunder - ihre Augen werden sie anerkennen") and when he continues to raise concerns, God tells him that Aron will be his mouthpiece ("Aron will ich erleuchten, er soll dein Mund sein").

    Scene 2 finds Moses returning to the "wateland" and meeting Aron, the two discuss God's message before returning to their people in Egypt. It's clear however, that not only does Aron not fully understand what Moses is telling him, but that neither he, nor Moses have fully comprehended what God has said. Moses insists that God is inconceivable and unseen; Aron questions how it is even possible to "worship what you dare not even conceive" ("kannst du lieben, was du dir nicht vorstellen darfst?").

    The two men return to Egypt to tell their people of God's message, but before they even arrive the people are speculating about the God that Moses is about to unveil (Scene 3). Before Moses can even begin to explain his vision of God they press upon him their idea of what God will be like, a God to whom they can make offerings, even "Leben opfern" ("living offerings"). When Moses tells them that God does not want offerings but demands everything ("fordert das Ganze") they reject him and his message. Whilst Aron continues to attempt to persuade them, Moses withdraws and doesn’t speak to the people again until he comes down from the mountain towards the end of Act 2.

    As Scene 4 continues Aron gradually concedes ground to the people, subverting Moses’ message still further. He turns Moses' staff into a snake, Moses' hand leprous and the waters of the Nile into blood. Wörner argues that essentially “Aaron’s miracles are feats of sorcery” (59). Certainly it's no accident that here it's Aron that strikes the rock, rather than Moses. Ultimately Aron even ends up promising the people physical good fortune ("leiblichen Glücks"). Eventually Aron's efforts at modifying his message in order to win the people's support pay off. “Aaron’s success with the people is evident in the concluding chorus of the first act, when they sing of Aaron’s promise” (Goldstein 158)

    Somewhat surprisingly, the second act starts with Moses on Mount Sinai convening with God. An interlude before the start of the second act has the chorus inquiring as to Moses' whereabouts. In other words Schönberg's libretto skips out several of the major incidents that dramatisations of the Exodus story usually include. So aside from the water turning to blood, all of the Moses' confrontation with Pharaoh, including the other plagues, is omitted. The instigation of the Passover and the death of the firstborn are also absent, as is the exodus itself. Perhaps for a work originally envisioned for the stage, the absence of the parting of the Red Sea / sea of reeds is not surprising, but certainly when considering Straub / Huillet's film, given the enormity of DeMille's two depictions of the event, its omission is striking. Lastly a number of other, less significant stories are excluded, such as the victory over the Amalekites (Ex 17) are excluded, those these have proven far less popular with filmmakers.

    Act II proper begins with unrest starting to come to a head in the Israelite camp.Under pressure, Aron creates the golden calf at the start of scene 3 and an orgy ensues. It's the opera's longest scene and features animal and human sacrifice, four naked virgins, widespread drunkenness, and the murder of a youth who speaks out against what is happening. Suddenly Moses reappears and at his command the golden calf simply disappears (Scene 4).

    The act's final scene, then, is a confrontation between Moses and his brother. “Moses smashes the Tablets not out of anger but to prove a point” (Tugenhaft), but the point is lost on Aron who has gained more confidence in his ideas about the importance of image in communicating God's message to the people. Aron argues that Moses destruction of the golden calf, and various other symbols, are themselves, other words that “word banishing image is also merely a representation of spiritual power” (Goldstein 158). When, at the end of the scene, the pillars of fire and cloud appear - symbols that could only originate from God himself - Aron seizes on them as examples of a "Gottes Zeichen" ("God-sent signal") thus arguing that God himself uses images to communicate to the people. As Aron exits with the people and God goes silent, Moses (and particularly his final lines) imply that “Moses, may indeed be guilty of having created an image - albeit a false one - of God, and image of God as an ineffable idea.” (Goldstein 159). Struck by this revelation Moses "sinkt verzweifelt zu Boden" ("sinks to the ground in despair") and Act II comes to a sudden close.

    As noted in my previous post, many productions of the opera end at this point, with Moses in despair at his failure to get his message across. Schönberg completed the orchestration for Act II, but left little music for Act III. There is, however, a completed libretto and the third, unfinished, act produces a very different conclusion to the story to that from the end of Act II. For David Poutney, who was the artistic director for Welsh National Opera's 2014 production of the opera, ending a production at the end of the second act gives a "rather false impression of the work, because we’re left with this ending with this kind of cliché... of the tragic ruler overwhelmed by his task, ‘heavy is the head’ and all that. Whereas actually the end was meant to be Act III [which] begins with Moses now surrounded by soldiers, not the people (Opera on 3).

    Once again there has been a significant passage of time between acts. The tide has turned such that Moses has once again gained the upper hand and Aron is now a prisoner. According to Goldstein, in the third act “Moses reappraises his ideas, assumes direct control”and speaks to the people directly for the first time" (Goldstein 161). He begins to use more powerfully communicative imagery, such as putting Aron in chains, or conducting a show trial. Aron is “accused of neglecting the word and constructing images that were estranged from idea...it is not Aaron’s images, but his false images” that are the problem (Goldstein 162).

    Furthermore, the lack of a musical accompaniment to the act adds to this idea. "(I)n an environment without music and song, he [Aron] can fall back on neither the ornamentation of his images nor the seductive beauty and overpowering effect of the bel canto tenor. The victory of Moses is complete and fully apparent” (Goldstein 164). This is, as Poutney says “a very brutal political conclusion to the opera” (Opera on 3). Seeing the failure of his initial message, and challenged by God's apparent use of imagery, Moses changes his position. However, whilst his new position is closer to the view that his brother had been arguing for, he does not team up with him, but supplant him, reclaiming his position and leaving his brother as a political prisoner.

    The end of the opera is even more surprising and, once again, rather sudden. Having seen Aron imprisoned and accused, the soldiers ask Moses if they should kill him ("Sollen wir ihn töten?"). Moses appears to have mercy and cast him into the wasteland, but Aron - whether due to a prior beating, or, perhaps, God's judgement - falls down dead. Moses reaction is to pronounce what appears to be a political slogan "Aber in der Wüste seid ihr unüberwindlich werdet" ("But in the desert you shall be invincible").

    - Batnitzky, Leora. (2004). The Image of Judaism: German-Jewish Intellectuals and the Ban on Images. Jewish Studies Quarterly. 11. 259-281.
    - Goldstein, Bluma (1992) Reinscribing Moses: Heine, Kafka, Freud, and Schoenberg in a European Wilderness, London: Harvard University Press.
    - Opera on 3: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, (2014) - BBC Radio 3 programme featuring interviews with Christopher Cooke, 13 June 2014. Available online -http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020y7jq
    - Tugenhaft, Aaron (1997) "Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron" in Sources: The Chicago Undergraduate Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume III. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20031013145056/

    - Wörner, Karl H. ([1963] 1959) Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron’ trans. Paul Hamburger, London: Faber and Faber.

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    Saturday, February 03, 2018

    I grandi condottieri (Great Leaders of the Bible: Samson and Gideon, 1965)

    Of the handful of filmmakers who have made several biblical films, Marcello Baldi is perhaps the most underappreciated. I grandi condottieri, known in the English-speaking world as Samson and Gideon was the last of four films that Baldi made in the early to mid sixties along with I patriarchi (The Patriarchs, 1962) Giacobbe, l’uomo che lottò con dio (Jacob, the Man Who Fought with God, 1963) and Saul e David (1964) (see here for more details).

    Here Baldi is only officially credited as the producer, but there's a good deal to suggest he shared at least some of the directing honours with the Spaniard Francisco Perez Dolz. Whilst the first part of the film - dealing with Gideon, was shot in Spain, the second half was shot at Cinecittà in Italy. There are also several moments which feel like Baldi's work elsewhere.

    The differences between the two halves of the film, however, extend far beyond filming style. The first stars an affable Ivo Garrani as Gideon (below), but also Fernando Rey as God's messenger. The two form an unlikely friendship. Having delivered his initial message, Rey's character stays on help Gideon slim down his burgeoning volunteer army, advise on strategy and give Gideon the some much needed encouragement. The film has moments of humour (having had to reduce his army still further Gideon quips "I wonder why we don't charge the Midianites, just the two of us") and sees and initially grumpy Gideon become a more relaxed and inspiring leader. As one of only a tiny number of films covering the story of Gideon it's surprising that it goes beyond his initial victory over the Midianites to show him pursuing their leaders until they are captured and killed as well as some of the incidents with his son.

    In contrast, the latter part of the film is more self-serious, even including moments of pathos. This section of the film is more typical of the Italian peplum films of this era, specifically the mythical muscleman movies that sprang up following the success of Pietro Francisci's 1958 film Le fatiche di Ercole (Hercules). These supernatural heroes pepla starred characters such as Hercules, Machiste and Goliath, tossed together with those from other historic myths in invented stories. In the ten years following Hercules at least 15 other such films were named after Samson (although on occasion the name of the lead character varied from country to country). The difference with this film however is that it is based on the established story, rather than one made up for the film.

    Whereas Gideon remains covered up for the entirety of his section of the film, Samson is frequently shirtless. Whereas God's messenger is present with Gideon almost throughout, in the Samson segment he is experienced only as wind blowing and, perhaps, a voice-over. God doesn't appear again until the end of the film, and, even then, Samson is unable to perceive his presence.

    As with the Gideon half of the film, the story sticks reasonably close to the original narratives, whilst still developing the characters a little. Samson (Anton Geesink) has been repeatedly defeating the Philistines's until one day he allows himself to be bound and carried into the Philistine camp, only to wreak victory with the jawbone of an ass. Samson then turns up at Gaza and destroys the gates before the Philistine leaders decide to enlist Delilah (Rosalba Neri) to trap him.

    The real strength of the film though is its host of memorable images. Midianites burn Israelite fields as early as scene two. The burning of the Midianite camp, and Garrani's face superimposed over a montage of Israelite victories. In the Gideon section there's a view from the bottom of a well, the moment of realisation when Samson spots the ass' jawbone, shot of the upper echelons of Dagon's temple. All of these testify to Baldi's eye for striking composition.

    Sadly though, the lack of a decent copy of the film - the main versions of it available for home viewing are cropped, dubbed and have a very poor quality image - make it hard to appreciate its strengths. Christopher Mulrooney gives it a good go, and makes some interesting observations about two of Baldi's other biblical films, but overall the film gets rather less attention than I think it merits. Perhaps one day Baldi's work (and indeed aht of Baldi/Francisco Perez Dolz) will become fashionable again and his contribution to both the sword and sandal genre and to the Bible on film will be re-evaluated and more widely appreciated.

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