• 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.

    Sunday, September 30, 2018

    La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (1898)


    The first biblical films date all the way back to 1897. Albert "Léar" Kirchner's La Passion du Christ and The Horitz Passion Play by Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, are now, sadly, considered lost, as is Siegmund Lubin's The Passion Play from the following year.1 In a similar manner almost all of the 1898 silent The Passion Play of Oberammergau, which was famously shot on a New York rooftop rather than in Bavaria, has been lost, though a fragment has survived.2

    The earliest remaining Bible film, then, is La vie et la passion de Jésus-Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, available online here) by George Hatot and Louis Lumière. Shot in France 1898 when most moving pictures were little more than short slices of real life (les actualités) it retains something of that documentary feel - is this a film about Jesus or the filming of a real-life play about Jesus? Any audience is kept off screen, but the sets retain the feel of an amateur stage production. Furthermore, the placing of the camera in several scenes feels as if it is placed at the side of an audience. These aspects are perhaps most obvious in the crucifixion scene where the shadow of the cross falls not across the ground, but against the back wall. Strangely the scene that feels most like it has been made with the camera in mind - the Garden of Gethsemane - is the one shot outdoors in the most natural setting. At the time documentary footage was commonly shot outside. Drama tended to be set indoors.

    Louis Lumière, of course, was the man who, along with his brother Auguste, "invented" cinema, by being the first to display moving pictures to a paying audience. The company the two founded for a while specialised in these actualités but also made comedies and the occasional reconstruction of historical events. Hatot was one of their key early collaborators, first on early documentary footage, but around this time also began to specialise in reconstructions of famous deaths including Mort de Robespierre (1897) and the execution of another religious martyr in Exécution de Jeanne d'Arc (1897).3

    Whilst the title of this film is The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, very little of Jesus' ministry is actually shown. The film starts with the Magi and the Shepherds worshipping Jesus as a baby in a manger, and is followed by a flight to Egypt scene where Mary, Joseph and Jesus stop to rest between the paws of a/the Sphinx. It's a scene that would be reproduced almost fifteen years later in From the Manger to the Cross, only that time shot on location in Egypt.

    All that lies between that and Jesus' Passion is a solitary miracle - the raising of the Widow of Nain's son. This scene is rare in Jesus movies, providing neither the human interest of the raising of Jairus' daughter, nor the prophetic resonance of Lazarus breaking out of his tomb. Here though is is handled in a relatively low key manner. The adult son is brought out to Jesus on a stretcher. Jesus (Gaston Bretteau) simply raises his arm and the man sits up, his sheet falling away as he does so.

    The lack of spectacle at this point is made all the more interesting by the inclusion of an invented miracle slightly later on. The Last Super scene, shot statically, from slightly close up, starts focused on Jesus' empty chair whilst various preparations are made. Suddenly there's a cut and Jesus appears in their midst. The disciples react with astonishment.

    Such jump-cut reappearances were relatively common at the time. Georges Méliès was in his prime and produced numerous short films making use of the technique that same year. These included the religious picture  La tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony) which featured the titular saint desperately trying to keep his mind on his prayers whilst young women keep materialising to tempt him, including including a moment when a statue of Jesus comes to life. Not only did this make him a forerunner of all those directors who entertained their audiences with a potent mixture of sex and religion, but when the following year he used his camera tricks to portray one of Jesus' miracles in Le Christ marchant sur les flots (Christ Walking on the Water, 1899), he became the first filmmaker to create both a reverent film about Jesus and an irreverent comic depiction of the crucifixion.

    More to the point, Georges Hatot himself, having started his career making actualité films of every life such as street scenes and military parades, began elaborating on the jump-cut technique. Whereas it is absent from his 1897 film Mort de Marat, and only used once in Métamorphose de Faust (1897). Having made La vie et la passion the following year, he then moved to Gaumont with Bretteau (who had played Jesus) to remake the Faust story. The resulting Les métamorphoses de Satan (1898), which Bretteau both starred in and co-directed made repeated use of the tec"hnique to portray as Mephistoles, Satan and a young woman continuously appear and disappear.

    It's more than possible, of course, that the jump-cut scene in La vie et la passion was at one stage intended as the episode in Luke where the resurrected Jesus miraculously appears amongst the disciples, but the resulting scene here is quite clearly The Last Supper: not only are their echoes of Leonardo's painting, but Jesus distributes the bread and wine and Judas kisses him on the cheek.

    The success of this film did little to dissuade other filmmakers from producing their own versions of Jesus' life and death. In particular, Pathé brought out their own tableaux-style Jesus film called La vie et la Passion de Christ in 1899 which gradually expanded (in both number of scenes and title length) through three new versions around up to 1913. There are a few posts on these films (now including this one) on this thread. The relationship between them itself is fairly complex. Hopefully I will be able to expand on it some point, but if you can't wait until then I encourage you to look up Boillat and Robert's article as detailed below.

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    1 - Boillat, Alain and Robert, Valentine. (2016) "La Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (1902–05)" in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927); ed. Shepherd, David. p. 27

    2 - According to Kinnard and Davis, a 35mm fragment of the film remains in the George Eastman House archives. The film was produced by Rich G. Hollaman despite the fact he had never actually seen a movie before. He proved so inept at the task that the rest of the cast and crew teamed up to shoot it in the early evening once he had left for the day. These days Henry C. Vincent is credited with being the director, but this marked the first time the roles of producer and director had been separated (The Guinness Book of Film Facts and Feats).

    3 - Abel, Richard (1994) The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, Berkeley: University of California Press. p.91 The observation about famous deaths is thanks to Luke McKernan.

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