• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, July 27, 2018

    Sodom und Gomorrha (1923)


    The 1920s saw two men battling for supremacy of the biblical epic, Cecil B. DeMille and the Hungarian Mihaly Kertesz. DeMille went on to make The Sign of the Cross (1934), Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956) to cement his name as the one that will forever be associated with the genre. Yet whilst Kertesz, who went on to change his name to Michael Curtiz, may ultimately have lost the battle, he's generally acknowledged to have won the war. Once in Hollywood, Curtiz made a string of the greatest films ever made including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Mildred Pierce (1946) and, of course, the immortal Casablanca (1942). He got to more than keep his hand in with the historical films as well, most notably his work with Errol Flynn, indeed David Thomson claims that "the Errol Flynn picture was really more Curtiz's invention than the actor's" (Thomson 196).

    Of course the move to Hollywood and to Warner's had a major impact on his career - it seems unlikely that his staying with them for around 25 years cannot be solely down to gratitude for them providing him an escape route from the growing Nazi threat. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if what really propelled him to greatness was someone sitting him down and telling him to stop making films set several time periods in parallel.

    In addition to his early films Boccacio (1919) and Cherchez la femme (1921), three of the four biblical films in which Curtiz was involved, use this differing time periods motif (here, Noah's Ark (1929) and Korda's 1922 Samson und Delila in which the exact extent of Curtiz's involvement is unclear), only Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) was solely set in the biblical era. What's strange about these three films is that even though the biblical content is only around 50% of the total running time, all three films are named after the biblical characters, perhaps because the lives of the modern characters reflect those of their predecessors.

    Whilst this approach had been popular ever since D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Sodom und Gomorrha is probably the most formal structure.1 The historic scenes take place within a dream of one of the modern character who first dreams of events in her own time, then of those in Old Testament Sodom, then of events in Syria, before then returning to the dreamlines in Sodom and the modern day,before final awakening for the film's conclusion. Thus the film has a chiastic structure as shown below:

    Modern day reality
         →Modern day dream pt.1
              →Biblical dream pt.1
                   →Syrian dream (all)
              →Biblical dream pt2.
         →Modern day dream pt.2
    Modern day reality


    Bizarrely, though, at the heart of this structure is neither the modern story nor the biblical story the film is named after, but the Syrian story. Interestingly this chiastic structure is also emphasised by the film's frequent use of an iris shot. Often these shots are static iris shots, which hold for their duration, rather than an "iris in" or an "iris out". The use of the iris is also a nod to the dream element of the film. In the "real" part of the story the iris acts as a predictor/reminder of the up coming dream sequence. In the dream section of the film it is one of the techniques the filmmakers use to both clarify and remind that this sequence is a dream not a (past) reality.

    Of course the film's concentric circles can also extend out one layer further. The darkest area around the iris above is, of course, our real world, now in a fourth time period, but it is this that is true reality, not the film's base layer of reality. And there seems to be an intention, on the surface at least, that this is the kind of film that wants to speak to the viewer at home, too. Throughout the film we have been encouraged to identify with the film's anti-heroine, through a series of visual techniques such as point of view shots and the fact that ultimately we enter her dreams, and when she reconsiders her behaviour in the light of what she has experiences, the film seems to want its audience to do likewise. I didn't really mean to spend as long on that as I have done...and I didn't even get to mention Christopher Nolan's Inception, which works on a very similar chiastic dream premise, though I suspect Nolan hasn't seen Sodom and Gomorrha.

    Sodom's other key identification is of the angel with Jesus. Most obviously, before the people of Sodom and Gomorrah try to kill the angel they tie him up, on the top of a hill, in a cruciform position, and ask him "Wenn Du ein Engel bist - Warum schützt Du Dich nicht?" (If you are an angel - why not save yourself?). There are a handful of other minor references applied both to the angel and to the "youth" from the Syrian section.

    The film's best visual moment is, as perhaps you might hope, Lot's wife (Lia) turning to a pillar of salt (see above). The biblical section of the film plays fairly loose with its source material. This is partly to align with the modern day story, so Lia is more wanton than ever the Bible suggests, in order to align her with the modern story's anti-heroine. The three leading female roles are all played by (Lucy Doraine). Similarly there is only one angel rather than two so that he can correspond more easily to the modern story's priest (similarly both roles played by Victor Varconi). Lastly Lot and Lia do not have daughters as they do in the biblical story, which, again, enables the film to align Lot's wife with the single woman of the modern story.

    The biblical account of Mrs Lot's demise always seems a little harsh. It's one of the places where the judgement of God seems particularly arbitrary and the story seems to be ped(a)lling extra hard to create an explanation. However, whilst here Lia doesn't exactly deserve death, she certainly is no less culpable than her fellow townspeople. In any case, she turns, there's a flash and she is turned instantly to a pillar of salt. The smoke masks the jump-cut, of course, but it's very deftly done and whilst Curtiz's greatest films don't really have a call for this kind of special effect, it demonstrates his ability to masterful execute a powerful visual sequence. It's made all the more effective by the delay between when the intertitle announces what is to happen and the event itself. Fully 3 minutes passes between the announcement of Lia's demise and it actually happening.

    As with many of Curtiz's films the sets are impressive - particularly one expressionist shot up a hill to a set of gallows late in the film which is so typical of the best of German films of the time. More typically though, it's the size and scale of the sets, that impresses as well as the scenes of their ultimate destruction. The scenes of crowds of extras fleeing their impending doom hint at what Curtiz would achieve in Robin Hood and in so many of his other swashbuckling films.

    Of course, such scenes were no longer novel by this point in the 1920s, but one or two moments, the water in Sodom plopping as sulphur begins to rain down, or the smoke billowing through an Astarte's temple, really stand out. The image quality when viewing the film on YouTube make it difficult to see the detail on the sets. One can only imagine how impressive it would be to see a proper print of the film, in good condition on the big screen.

    That said, these scenes, and the film in general, do rather drag and if the film's aim was to get an audience of flappers to reform their behaviour, it seems hard to believe many of them found the harsh, angry priest very appealing. According to Shepherd, the film had spent quite some time in development (217). Given that Curtiz's sense of rhythm, pacing and plot are so perfect in Casablanca, which was still being written as it was being shot, perhaps the problem is that Curtiz had not yet learnt to trust his instincts. Sodom und Gomorrha is notable for the consistency of its structure, but we should be grateful that he would go on to create far better works.
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    1 - According to Shepherd there are various cuts of this film including "the DVD produced by the Filmarchiv Austria (2008) [which] does not contain the 'Syrian episode'" and a 1995 reconstruction (218). Whichever version Shepherd is referring to in his general discussion, it does not seem to be the same version as the one available on YouTube which I also acquired on DVD. For one thing Shepherd calls Lot's wife "Sarah" (219)
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    - Shepherd, David J. (2013), The Bible on Silent Film: Spectacle, Story and Scripture in the Early Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    - Thomson, David (2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, LONDON (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.

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