• 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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