• 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


    Sunday, December 23, 2018

    Der Stern von Bethlehem (1921)

    (The above screen-grab is from Reiniger's 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem)
    One of the lost biblical films that I dearly hope will turn up in someone's attic one day is Lotte Reiniger's 1921 Der Stern von Bethlehem. For years I laboured under the mis-apprehension that the 1956 film The Star of Bethlehem which I reviewed here, was essentially just the 1921 film re-released with narration. Sadly I've now found out enough about this to make this appear highly unlikely. For one thing most of Reiniger's pre-WWII films were lost during the bombing of Berlin, though thankfully her classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed - made five years later in 1926 -  has survived and enjoyed a couple of recent restorations. The European Lost Films Archive officially lists this as lost.

    Another key factor is that the 1921 film appeared so early in Reiniger's career that it seems unlikely her style would have developed to the level of sophistication on display in the 1956 film. The layering on the backgrounds, the use of colour and just the smoothness of the movement all suggest an artist at the top of her game. Prince Achmed is considered a masterpiece, but even with that it's plain to see the development in her technique.

    That said Reiniger always gave the impression that she was just doing what came naturally to her. In a rare interview with her in 1976, she talked about how she was able to cut-out intricate figures from card from almost as soon as she was able to hold a pair of scissors.(1) You can see her at work in the 1970 documentary, The Art of Lotte Reiniger, and the speed with which she works is certainly impressive. She also included an animated version of her scissors cutting out the figures at the start of another of her surviving early films Cinderella (1922). The intricacy of these cut outs, the sleeves on the dresses here for example - in a hand-cut moving image - are incredible. Furthermore "Reiniger’s great strength as an animator is her inclusion of delicate little motions that imbue her creations with life".(2)

    Reiniger started her career as an animator working on Paul Wegener's Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin, 1918) aged just 17. The film was a live action movie, but when Wegener was struggling to get his rats to follow his piper he turned to Reiniger to produce an animated sequence instead. The year after Hameln's release she directed her own short film Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart, 1919) making her work more or less contemporary with the women featured in Kino Lorber's Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set, released last month.

    Der Stern von Bethlehem was only her third film then (following Amor und das standhafte Liebespaar) both of which were produced by the Institute for Cultural Research in Berlin.(3) Whilst the Institute Around the same time she began to work for advertising exec Julius Pinschewer and it's thanks to this partnership that we have her oldest surviving work Das Geheimnis der Marquise (The Marquise’s Secret, 1921/2).(4) The film tells of a woman who woos her lover thanks to her skin which is "as white as snow". When the Marquis begs to know which god gave her such radiance she tells him it was all down to her Nivea cream.

    Whilst the plot and dialogue are hardly extraordinary it's an interesting reference point. For one thing Reiniger's art and creativity is plain to see. In particular the moment when she is applying her cream and her face appears in the mirror opposite is especially striking. It's also notable that the figures here are white on a black background, rather than the dark figures in the foreground that came to typify Reiniger's style.

    Interpolating between Marquise and Cinderella gives us a fair idea of what might have been in Der Stern von Bethlehem. It's unlikely to have been as long as the 1956 film and the background would probably have been plain, rather than the striking, multi-planed backgrounds of the latter work.(5) The style may have been slightly different from all three films.

    Reiniger and her husband and life-long collaborator Carl Koch eventually fled Nazi Germany and for many years moved from place to place including Egypt, Greece and Italy. Eventually they had to return home and were pressed into making work for the Nazis. After the war the couple moved to London where they enjoyed their most productive period, creating 22 films in just ten years between 1949 and 1958. Many of these films were based on German fairy tales including a remake of Cinderella so the 1956 remake was something of an exception.

    Sadly, it seems likely we'll never get to see the original, but the 1956 version an be viewed on the Gospel Film Archive's Christmas Collection DVD, on YouTube, or on this DVD/Bluray release of  The Adventures of Prince Achmed which also includes her 1974 film The Lost Son based on the parable of Jesus.(6) If you would like to find out more about Lotte Reiniger there are a range of good podcasts or you could have a read of Whitney Grace's new book "Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation".

    1 - Kenneth Clouse Collection, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Available online - http://uschefnerarchive.com/project/lotte-reiniger-recording/
    2 - Kramer, Fritzi (2018). Cinderella (1922) A Silent Film Review March 18, at Movies Silently - http://moviessilently.com/2018/03/18/cinderella-1922-a-silent-film-review/
    3 - Guerin, Frances and Mebold, Anke (2013) "Lotte Reiniger." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, Web. July 6, 2016 https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/lotte-reiniger/
    4 - ibid
    5 - Seemingly it was Reiniger, not Walt Disney, who invented the multi-planed camera, though he developed the design and patented it. Indeed, quite a lot of Reiniger's leagcy appears to have been consolidated into the Disney myth. Snow White (1937) is often credited as the first feature-length animated film, but of course this appeared a full eleven years after Prince Achmed which at between 66 and 81 minutes certainly qualifies as being feature length.
    6 - The BFI have posted an excerpt of the film on YouTube and it's clear that this version of the film contains a male narration track which also features some singing in contrast to the voice of Barbara Ruick who provides the narration on the Cathedral Films version released by Gospel Films.

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    Saturday, December 22, 2018

    The Last Hangover (2018)

    When moving pictures began to emerge as a popular medium in the late 1890s, it wasn't long before early filmmakers turned to the Bible for their material. Likewise, when television began to spread in the 1940s religious programming was quick to follow. So it's perhaps something of a surprise that it has taken this long before a major video-on-demand service has produced a biblical adaptation.

    Even so The Last Hangover (2018), which debuted yesterday on Netflix, has been produced in conjunction with the company's Brazilian operation, rather than their US team and it's a comedy rather than a drama. The programme is actually a spin-off of the annual Christmas parody from Porta dos Fundos - a Brazilian YouTube channel, with over 15 million subscribers and reworks the events of the Last Supper into a spoof of The Hangover (2009).

    Having seen neither The Hangover or watched much of Porta dos Fundos' work puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of some of the references, but the concept is not difficult to get your head around. Jesus (Fábio Porchat) and the disciples get together for their last supper together ("Who does suppers anymore?") and when the disciples wake up the next morning with hangovers and hazy memories, Jesus is gone. The rest of the film flicks between the disciples trying to piece things together and flashbacks from the previous night. It's possible, I suppose, to see this as a nod to the way Christians have sought to piece together the life of Jesus from the four gospel accounts, each of which is different from the others and tells only part of the story. Heck, I suppose that you could even see it as a critique of the way many Christians think of the gospels as first-hand eye-witness accounts, even though there are various reasons for questioning such a position.

    That, however would seem to be a bit of a stretch. This is essentially a YouTube skit spun out to about 40 minutes and looking to appeal more to fans of the 2009 film than the devout. For one thing, it's not hard to think many of the latter would be offended by this. Whilst Jesus is portrayed as the son of God, the film goes far beyond that "glutton and a winebibber" tag from Luke 7:34. This Jesus swears, does drugs, shouts homophobic slurs and even kills a magician who is temporarily stealing his limelight. Meanwhile Mary Magdalene has continued her work as a prostitute - a fact that goes over Jesus' head much to the disciples amusement. But then it's 2018 and material like this is all over the internet. Tell Netflix you don't like this kind of stuff being made if you like, but ultimately this is "on demand". It's hard to imagine anyone genuinely being offended by this after accidentally stumbling upon it unknowingly.

    The idea of the disciples being in a state on the morning of Good Friday is potentially quite interesting. After all, they had just taken part in a big celebration, after which they struggled to stay awake, ran off into the night naked and were generally lying low the following day. It's not a historically likely scenario, but it's one that, done right, could have some merit and might even produce the odd insight. That doesn't really happen though. The Last Hangover is passably entertaining and there's the occasional good lines, but oddly, the thing I was most impressed by was the long opening tracking shot, which began outside the tavern in which the group was meeting and weaved it way up to the middle of the group as they raised their glasses for a toast.

    So disappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, The Last Hangover isn't particularly funny. My fellow Bible Film geek Peter Chattaway guessed that it would be closer to Wholly Moses (1980) and Year One (2009) than Life of Brian (1979) and that's a pretty fair summary. It feels like a skit spread too thinly; indeed 2016's Porta dos Fundos sketch, where Jesus uses the occasion of his birthday party to praise Judas for being such a great friend, is far more on the money. Ideas like this can work over a longer running time - for example in the excellent The Real Old Testament (2003) which is a similar mashup of Genesis and the 1990s series The Real World (1992 onward) - but there the narrative relied on the biblical text, adopting only the form of the modern day production, rather than just pushing both the form and narrative of the modern work into the nearest available episode from thr gospels.

    Perhaps such analysis is taking things too seriously and I should take on the advice of one of the disciples who advises Jesus to relax because after all, "by tomorrow no-one will remember a thing". That seems like an appropriate summary of this little film. It has no great aspirations, just an interesting-ish scenario and a few good lines. It's entertaining enough, but it's hard to imagine many people will give it that much extra thought once they've moved onto MacCauley Culkin's Google Assistant advert or a rerun of the 1999 Friends Christmas special.


    Friday, December 14, 2018

    Mesih (Jesus, the Spirit of God, 2007)

    Nader Talebzadeh's Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007) is the first Islamic film about Jesus. One of the reasons that a Muslim film about had not been done before was because the Sunni form of Islam does not permit portrayal of prophets, indeed the hadith discourages portrayal of all humans and animals in general. Secondly however, the Qu'ranic material about Jesus (who it calls Isa) does not fall so conveniently into entire books as it does in the Bible, or even in the same way as the Qu'ran treats other Islamic prophets such as Noah, who have their own surah (71).

    To produce his Islamic Jesus film, Talebzadeh turned to another text, the Gospel of Barnabas. The origins of this gospel are unclear. There are mentions of a gospel bearing Barnabas' name from even before the formation of the canon in the fourth century, but there are few compelling reasons to believe that this is the same text we have today. Tales abound of the book being secreted away in a fourth century pope's private library, but there's little news of it until its re-emergence in the seventeenth century.

    It's perhaps no surprise, then, the text we have today is fairly unusual. It's far longer than any of the canonical gospels, and contains almost all of the material from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as some that is unique. Moreover it contains a number elements at odds with the traditional portrayal of Jesus. Most notably Jesus goes out of his way to make it clear that (in contrast to Christian teaching) he is not divine. There is also a chapter (135) with strong echoes of Dante's seven circles of hell, as well as numerous predictions about the future coming of Muhammad scattered throughout the text.

    Perhaps most controversially Barnabas expands on the Qu'ran's implication that Jesus was not crucified (surah 4:157). Instead both the text and the film have Jesus taken up to the third heaven. while back on earth Judas is transformed into Isa's likeness and is crucified in his place. At the time of its release Talebzadeh spoke about his intention "to make a bridge between Christianity and Islam, to open the door for dialogue" (Breitbart). It's notable, then, that whilst Talabzadeh does include this passage, he also includes a very abridged version of the Christian account of Jesus' death. Films with multiple endings, such as Wayne's World (1992) and Run Lola, Run (1998), proliferated in the 1990s but this is surely the only religious film to have tried such an approach. Both sequences are introduced with a subtitle, firstly "Continuation of events according to the Christian narrative" and then shortly afterwards "Continuation of events according to Islamic sources and the Gospel of Barnabas".

    The ending here, more akin to Freaky Friday (2003) than holy writ, is one that will strike those unacquainted with Barnabas as a little odd. But then the same might also be said by those who are unfamiliar with the ending of the canonical gospels. The idea of God replacing Jesus' body with that of Judas is no more inherently strange than the idea of God replacing Jesus' lifeless body with one that has been transformed and resurrected.

    There are numerous other moments in the film which will raise eyebrows with those familiar with the Christian versions of the story, which are also taken straight from the pages of Barnabas. For example, the inclusion of Barnabas the man as one of Jesus' twelve disciples (ch.14); the moment when Caiaphas bows before Jesus to worship him (93); the scene where the Roman Senate pronounces, for Jesus' sake, that he is neither God nor the son of God (98); or, the way that what condemns Jesus in the Sanhedrin is his assertion that the Messiah will be a descendant of Ishmael, not Isaac (208), all of these are to be found in the Gospel of Barnabas. Perhaps most oddly is the scene when Jesus is asked decide if a woman should be stoned for adultery. Instead of just writing in the sand, he creates a mirror in the sand, which one accuser looks into and is driven mad with the horror he sees therein. It's a scene reminiscent of parts of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a film which Talebzadeh admires even if he is critical of its theology.

    Gibson's film was, of course, heavily criticised for its anti-Semitism and sadly the same criticism could also be levelled at Mesih. Some of this comes from the Gospel of Barnabas itself. It's also possible that some of this might be coloured by the ill feeling between Iran and modern-day Israel. Whichever way, when Pilate falters about passing sentence on Jesus one of the priests shouts out "we take full responsibility for his blood" which if not a direct quote of the Matt 27:25 passage Gibson included, certainly seems like a reasonably accurate paraphrase. Moments later the narrator say that "God set a seal on the cruel hearts of the Children of Israel". Indeed, across the film in general, the Romans, bizarrely, seem to almost support Jesus, whereas the Jewish leaders are seen as the full instigators of his death. Furthermore the moment when a Jewish High Priests kneels, bows before Jesus and hails him as "My God" will, quite understandably, cause offence in some circles.

    In a few places the filmmakers add dramatic flourishes of their own which are particularly interesting in this respect. Firstly, Gamaliel the Jewish rabbi known to us from the Talmud and the Mishnah as well as the Bible's book of Acts appears in one of the first scenes featuring the Jewish leaders. In Acts 5 his tolerant laissez-faire policy of leaving the Jesus movement to run it's course seems like almost pro-Christian wisdom, but here, whilst the tolerance element remains, both Judaism and Christianity are held to be in error, and his word come across as more wrong-headed than wise.

    Similarly 'brought forward' is St. Paul, or Sha-oul, whose campaign of terror against the followers of Jesus begins with him murdering the newly raised Lazarus. Again, given Saul's role in spreading what Talebzadeh sees as false accounts of Jesus, this seems like an attempt to discredit him, though one that is consistent with his initial appearance in Acts.

    Similarly, the filmmakers also give additional validity to the Gospel of Barnabas by not only introducing Barnabas as one of the twelve, but also by showing him at various points in the film, as scribbling down the events as they are happening. Some of the more traditional Bible films have adopted a similar approach, the use of the older and younger Matthew characters in The Visual Bible: Matthew (1993) or Luke's appearance in A.D. (1985) as well as various other scenes where Matthew or John are seen taking their pens with them or noting things down. On the one hand, these touches are light propaganda, not least because they are reasonably unlikely, yet somehow I always find this a nice touch, and here's its no exception.

    One particularly interesting element of the film is Jesus' appearance. Isa is played by Ahmad Soleimani-Nia, a veteran of the Iranian army. As this footage was also used as part of an 1000-minute TV series, Soleimani-Nia had to maintain his Christ-like appearance as Jesus for seven years in case they needed to shoot additional scenes (Fleishman).

    Soleimani-Nia is strikingly different from any of the film Jesuses that had gone before him. For one thing Isa's long blond curly hair seems far more 'western' than those watching an Islamic take on Jesus might expect. Whilst he would not easily be mistaken for the Jesus of Christian art, there certainly seems to have been some influence; Talebzadeh did, after all, study at New York's Columbia University Film School for several years. Certainly this blond look makes Jesus stand out from the film's other characters who look more typically Iranian than he does. That said Soleimani-Nia's appearance could not be described as western either. Thios makes him a striking figure, but also give him an air of the other-worldly, both at home in this world, but also distinct from it. Whilst none of the canonical gospels, the Qu'ran or the Gospel of Barnabas give a physical description of Jesus, there is some precedent for Isa's appearance from the Hadith. The Hadith of al-Bukhari (vol.4 no.168) describes Jesus as having "curly hair and a reddish complexion" (Tatum 221). This too is different from the film's final portrayal, it may well be a factor in how he is portrayed.

    In contrast the rest of the characters feel far more authentic. Just as Soleimani-Nia was a former member of the Iranian military, the rest of the actors seem much more believably like the kind fo people Jesus may rubbed shoulders with. Not only are they more ethnically similar, but there's an ordinariness to them that is absent from the majority of western Jesus films. Similarly, the muted, almost monochrome, costumes feel more authentically like the kind of things peasants of Jesus' time may have worn, as opposed to the bright colours of Hollywood's grandest biblical epics.

    Perhaps the most interesting visual aspect of the film, however, is its frequent use of slightly below eye-level camera positions. Filmmakers often drop in the occasional low-level shot to emphasise a certain character's power. Here it is not nearly quite so deferential, but it is used frequently throughout the film. The extent to which it is used suggests that Isa's superiority is not about a certain context or a particular moment, it's something more integral to who he is. The subtlety of the position indicates that whilst Isa is special compared to those around him, he's not that special. He's not a god, just a prophet.

    And it's that which seems to be at the heart of this film. Overall it is surprisingly faithful to its source, but that source is clearly the Gospel of Barnabas rather than the canonical gospels. It's this that makes the film so interesting amongst biblical films, even if the extra interpretative step that places between it's viewers and the original events themselves will not be welcome in all quarters.

    - Breitbart (2008) "'Islamic Jesus' hits Iranian movie screens" Jan 13. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20080115212748/http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=080113231632.1q3rt654&show_article=1

    - Fleishman, Jeffrey (2008) "An Iranian's vision of Jesus' life stirs debate" in Los Angeles Times April 29. Retrieved from Web Archive - http://web.archive.org/web/20120113224042/http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-fg-jesus29apr29,1,3806018.story

    - Tatum, W. Barnes (2004) Jesus: A Brief History (Blackwell Brief Histor. London: Blackwell

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    Saturday, December 01, 2018

    Quo Vadis (1951)

    Revisiting Quo Vadis (1951) after all this time I feel I should somehow have more enthusiasm for it - it was nominated for eight Oscars™, after all. How many Bible movies can boast that? Yet for all it's fabulous colours and spectacular crowd scenes; despite Miklós Rózsa much lauded score; and despite, even, Peter Ustinov's memorable take on Nero, I find myself strangely unmoved by it. I don't want to spend too much time on that - as ever I'd rather dwell on the positives and the aspects of it that do catch my attention - but, I guess, the central love story seems to lack the necessary drama or gravitas to pull everything off. Robert Taylor's Marcus Vinicius is far from the first hero to start off a film as a jerk only to reform his ways, but somehow I can't buy into the idea that forcibly removing a woman from their home and throwing them into the middle of one of Nero's orgies would ever fan the flames of love in a fair maiden's heart. Perhaps it's just the lack of action scenes, but watching it again with the kids, I'm a little embarrassed at how, well, boring it is.

    Which isn't to say that there's not a few interesting things to discuss as well. For one thing, it wasn't until I re-watched this that it became apparent just how specifically the Coen Borthers parody this film in particular in Hail Caesar (2016). The opening shots of the Coens' film-within-the-film is practically a shot for shot homage to the opening of Quo Vadis. View these two short clips from the two films back to back and you will see what I mean. This is also film with the overly long trumpets which was parodied so mercilessly in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

    It's all too easy looking back on it almost seventy years later to only recall those films to affectionately mock it, but, of course it had huge impact at the time. Not only did it top the 1951 box with over $20M in worldwide income, it also inspired films like The Robe (1953) and a handful of other Roman-Christian epics that were to follow.

    Yet as much as later films have reused, recycled and reinvented aspects of it, the film itself drew on works that went before it. Firstly there are the earlier adaptations of Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel. There were three silent versions of the film made in 1901, 1912 and 1924. The 1912 film (available to view online) is arguably the most famous - some credit it with being the first true epic. If nothing else it's this one, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, I feel most guilty about for not having seen. That might be something I put right shortly.

    But as much as Mervyn Le Roy's 1951 retelling derives from both Sienkiewicz's novel and the various early adaptations, it also is influenced to some degree by another film. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) clearly draws a great deal from "Quo Vadis", not least it's plot, though presumably changes just enough to avoid a lawsuit. There's Nero and Poppaea and a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian girl. Despite the furore caused by the film it performed reasonably well, but more significantly it provided a bit of a template for how a proper adaption of the novel could be handled. Replace Charles Laughton with Peter Ustinov to play a similarly self-obsessed camp Nero, tone down the orgy a bit and hope the spectacle grabs the audience's attention. DeMille's film forms the bridge between the novel, the 1912 film and LeRoy's remake.

    Having said that I'm not sure how to read the portrayal of Nero and, to a lesser extent Patricia Laffan's Poppaea. Ustinov plays Nero as a vain toddler without anyone to keep him in check. Leo Genn's Petronius peddles a fine line in providing sharp answers that cut both ways, only Nero cannot even conceive of the possibility that what sounds like praise might in fact be an insult. Ustinov was nominated for an Oscar™ (as was Genn) but lost out to Karl Malden's turn in A Streetcar Named Desire. His performance is memorably, but mainly for its over-the-topness. Of course, Nero was over the top, but Ustinov channels Laughton as much as anything. More to the point, despite his toned down sexuality, these days it just feels a little bit transphobic. Ultimately it also overshadow's Laffan's Poppaea a bit too much, at least to the extent that I would have liked to see a bit more of her character (who is, after all rather more instrumental in how events transpire between Deborah Kerr's Lygia and Marcus Vinicius). That said I also suspect that this would also have had it's problems.

    Having come this far and only just mentioned Deborah Kerr, I feel I owe her the last word. I don't really know where this ranks amongst her films, but in the orgy scene she is particularly outstanding. As Marcus makes his arrogantly ham-fisted attempts to seduce her she bristles at the very prospect. On the one hand she remains calm and prim and proper. On another level she is clearly appalled and horrified at what is happening to her. And on perhaps another, part of the disgust she feels is because she is attracted to Marcus despite her misgivings. The film doesn't really make as much of her as it could. Marcus's story arc consists of his conversion; Petronius' his rebellion; but for Lygia (and I suppose, Paul and Peter) there's little to no story arc. As Christian's their characters have already reached their goal and the film, unlike, say Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) gives little consideration to the possibily of regression (or even progression) following a conversion experience.

    Despite my intentions, I seem to have ended on a negative note. Undoubtedly, there are things to admire about Quo Vadis. If you havent already seen it, you really should, but, perhaps only once.