• 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


    Friday, March 22, 2019

    Jaël et Sisera (1911)

    Amazingly this short film from 1911 is the only time any part of the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) has been filmed in any kind of vaguely significant production. For this reason (and a few others) it's been one I've wanted to see for very many years and last week I happened to be at BFI Southbank -  where you can now access the BFI's digital library - and was able to walk in and watch it for free within a minute or two of arriving. If you're passing that way I very much recommend it. A few other old silent films are there to view as well. (For example, three films about Jephthah's daughter from a similar time period are there also).

    Unfortunately, Deborah doesn't get to feature in this film either. Whilst Barak, Sisera, Jael and her husband Heber all get a part, Deborah not only remains off screen, but doesn't even get a mention in the intertitles. In some ways that's not entirely surprising, at only 10 minutes long the film has to trim the story right down and given the success of the biblical-women-slaying-Israelite-enemies-whilst-they-sleep genre (OK,mainly Judith) it's not that hard to see why Pathé and director Henri Andréani prioritised Jael.

    The film starts outside Jael's tent. Things are a little unclear, but Sisera has seemingly conquered the camp because a group of Israelites are chained up, Jael is somewhat subdued and a minute or two into the picture Heber, previously described by an intertitle as being "friendly with Sisera", is brought in seemingly under a certain amount of duress. When nobody is looking Jael gesticulates towards the skies, and then breaks the chains of some of the Isarelites. They then flee to tell Barak about Sisera's location and his army marches our to battle. This opening shot, and indeed most, if not all of the film, is all filmed on location outdoors (as with Andréani's 1911 Caïn et Abel and a number of his other films).

    On hearing the news of Sisera's location, Barak and his troops attack Sisera's camp in various locations, including the scene of the opening shot and one particularly pleasing shot as the Israelites chase Sisera's men up and over a hill. Another scene takes place on what looks like a beach though the intertitles describe God sending a "Kishon Torrent" to help Barak in an interesting dovetailing of Judges 4 verses 13 and 15. The torrent looks more like a lake or a sea, but the location does provide Andréani with a sizeable rock for Sisera's man to scramble upon in a fashion similar to Francis Danby's Painting "The Deluge" (c.1840), which also found its way into Darren Aronfsky's Noah (2014).

    Sisera survives however, and creeps away somewhat stealthily, but Barak nevertheless manages to hunt him down. So it is that Sisera arrives back at Jael's tent and begs her to shelter him. In an echo of the first scene Jael gives Sisera water and he then collapses in exhaustion.Whilst he lies there unconscious she pulls up a large tent peg and drives it through his head (pictured above). The moment is surprisingly brutal. Whilst there's no blood and the action takes place in mid-shot, the repeated violent hammering is rather shocking.

    Moments later Barak's army arrives, only to find Jael has done their work for him. Barak kneels besides Sisera's lifeless body and kisses the hem of her garment in tribute.

    The quality of the print of the film is pretty impressive. I don't know enough about restoration and transfer to be able to tell whether this has been simply transferred to mp4 format or whether some restoration work has been done, but I should point out that the image above was taken rather hastily on my phone from the computer screen and so doesn't at all do it justice. The colour is quite striking, and consistent with Andréani's David et Goliath from the previous year. Particularly memorable is the shot panning up the hill as Sisera's troops seek to escape. As early biblical films goes it's an interesting mix of reliance on the text combined with the odd bit of dramatic licence when it suited the filmmakers, but perhaps most interesting is the use of somewhat shocking violence. Biblical films are well known for sword play, but rarely until the present century have they been quite so violent. Still, if ever a source text justifies such an approach, it's this.

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