• 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


    Tuesday, January 09, 2024

    La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, Henri Andréani, 1913)

    Rob Kranz was kind enough to let me know that copy of Pathé's 1913 film La Fille de Jephté (Jephthah's Daughter, 1913) is available on YouTube. It's not actually the full version, which according to the old Pathé archive site ran to 405m (~30 minutes), but the Pathé Baby version which (on YouTube) runs to only 4m57s.

    Despite it's short running time the film manages to pack in most of the essential elements of the story from Judges 11 with one glaring exception. The Gileadite leaders plead with Jephthah, previously a social outcast, to lead them in a battle with the Ammonites. He accepts and vows to God that if he wins he will burn as an offering the first person to leave his house. When he gets home the first person through the doors is his own daughter, who then submits to her father's sickening vow.

    Two of the most notable omissions are Jepthah's long speech (11:12-28) and his daughter's two months weeping and wandering in the mountains (11:37-40), so it would be interesting to know what was in the 20-25 minutes left on the cutting room floor. Given that the intertitles are fairly long and appear quite often in this print, it's not unreasonable to assume Jephthah's speech may have been included in part, or even at length, likewise with the trip to the mountains.

    However, the really puzzling omission is the actual sacrifice of the daughter, here called Leïla and played by Jeanne Bérangère. According to a rather old page at cineartistes.com Bérangère was a theatre actor before the Pathé's tempted her into cinema where she worked until 1928. She starred (though not as the lead) in Andréani and Zecca's Shakespearean adaptation Cleopatra (1910) among other roles. She was born in 1864 meaning that at the time of filming she was around almost 50, which is probably rather older than we would typically assume the daughter of a warrior to be (Henri Etiévant who played her on-screen father was six years her junior).

    Instead the closing scene features Bérangère kneeling (pictured below) before two handmaidens cover her with a bed-sheet-sized veil obscuring her face from view. This is a fascinating piece of imagery. Shorn of an actual scene of the sacrifice, this acts as a replacement. The veil is reminiscent of the sheets placed on bed placed over dead bodies, but also a simple of way of obscuring her from our view as if she is no longer present, gone but not forgotten. 

    Moreover it could also be read as a comment on the way that the name of her idiotic father has been passed down to us, while she has been obscured from history, forever nameless and therefore, in a way, faceless. An then there's also a sense of holiness, like the veil between the majority of the temple and the holy of holies, or (more pertinently) the veil that Moses wears after his encounters with God in Exodus 34:35.

    As I've mentioned before, films about Jephthah and his daughter are few and far between, but occur mainly in this early silent period around the turn of the decade. Prior to this one (and it's longer sibling)  J. Stuart Blackton made one in 1909 for Vitagraph (which I included in my book) and Léonce Perret / Louis Feuillade did the same for Gaumont in 1910 (there's more on that one at the excellent BetweenMovies, including a writing credit for a certain Abel Gance). That one was also known as The Vow.

    However, 1913 saw not one but two films titled Jephthah's Daughter, as J. Farrell MacDonald produced another 25-30 minute version of the story for Warner (my review). This one was directed by Henri Andréani, whose name I will always associate with melodrama, following David Shepherd's chapter about his work in his monograph "The Bible on Silent Film". Here there is plenty of melodrama, especially from Mr Etiévant as Jephthah. (In addition starring in roughly 66 movies, Etiévant ended up as a director himself taking charge of around 27 films starting that same year, having co-directed La fin d'un joueur (1911) with André Calamettes). 

    One area where Andréani's thumbprint seems clearest is his staging of the battle scene. This large scale scene, featuring a huge crowd of extras looks so similar in composition and camera placing / movement looks so similar to the battle scenes from Andréani's earlier Absalon (Absalom, 1912) that I was convinced he'd simply reused the battle footage from the earlier film. Close inspection reveals this not to be the case. Perhaps he was reusing spare footage he shot on that day, or perhaps he knew how (and, I think, where) he liked to film these shots. Either way it's not hard to imagine that in the fuller version of this movie, the scene is as impressive as it is in Absalon.

    Of course with any Jephthah movie the key issue is not the battle scenes, but how it handles the terrible twist in the story. Do they try and justify Jephthah's actions or excuse it. Certainly the absence of the sacrifice scene itself removes some of the horror of the actual story. This needless death happens off-screen. Moreover the absence of the daughter's last days in the mountains also misses the chance to humanise her and to bring her centre stage. Bérangère becomes a rather peripheral figure. Her father is presented as the hero. 

    Moreover it's he who is permitted a horrified reaction (again allowing the audience to sympathise with him). Bérangère remains placid and unaffected, calmly accepting her awful fate. The one point I will note in the film's favour in this respect is that the intertitles clearly say that Jephthah's vow (Judges 11:31) was made with human sacrifice in mind. Jephthah promises to sacrifice "la première personne" (the first person) that leaves the house, rather than "whatever" as most English translations render it. The NRSV, my preferred translation, goes for "whoever", though as do the two French versions I checked. It's seemingly one of those passages whose translation is largely determined by your prior convictions about what you think happened.

    Perhaps this cut ending where it does leaves such questions open ended, in a similar way to how some argue the sudden ending of Mark might intend to. It leaves. us with questions. Given the vow he has made, what should he do. Would God mind if he broke his vow to avoid such a horrible outcome? So much of Judges plays like a series of cautionary tales, and perhaps this is a good way to translate that sense back into a 'modern' context

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