The Sunday Intertitle: Jesus Speaks

I know, I know. Not great quality.

From THE WANDERING JEW (1933), directed by Maurice Elvey, who’s best known for THE CLAIRVOYANT (Claude Rains and Fay Wray) and a lively silent version of HINDLE WAKES, a much-filmed regional comedy. By the end of his career, Elvey had declined to slapstick comedies with Tommy Trinder.

But THE WANDERING JEW is another kettle of fish and loaves. Conrad Veidt gives it his all as the titular semitic itinerant, in a tale which takes its starting point from the medieval yarn about the Jew cursed to walk the earth, immortal, until the Second Coming, his punishment for spitting on Christ. The story is obviously anti-semitic at heart, but the filmmakers try to turn things around and make Veidt an analogue for the suffering of the Jewish people. He is redeemed during the Spanish Inquisition (helmed by reliable fat baddie Francis L Sullivan, whose work here may have landed him a similar role of corpulent corruption in Sternberg’s abortive I, CLAUDIUS) where the film seems to be taking aim at the modern embodiments of prejudice and hatred. A pity they didn’t go all the way and bring the WJ into modern times, where he could denounce Hitler and Goebbels. But I guess in 1933 Britain was in a more… placatory mood.

Of course, the implicit and explicit Christianity of the story kind of warps the pro-semitic good intentions, but you can see somebody meant well, meant to make a brave and powerful statement, and then just kind of got a bit lost.

Anyway, the image above demonstrates Jesus cursing the WJ — we never see the Christ directly, and even his speech is represented by an intertitle, or, more correctly, a surtitle, which shrinks onto the screen until we can read it, or almost. “I will not wait on you, but you shall wait for me until I come to you again.” Conrad then helpfully repeats the text for the benefit of any slow readers, and for those future generations viewing on a ratty copy with image so degraded you can hardly see anything. I like the idea that Jesus is so holy he can’t be seen directly by movie cameras (cf Wyler’s BEN HUR), and am even more impressed by the notion that his speech can only be represented through superimposed text. That’s some messiah! On the other hand, I am slightly surprised at the notion of Christ going around cursing people. That’s not how I imagined him, somehow.

Elsewhere in the movie, Peggy Ashcroft is a young Spanish hottie, and Hugo Riesenfeld contributes a striking score — 30s British movies have their own very different musical sound — which, unfortunately, never seems to shut up for a minute.

34 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Jesus Speaks”

  1. I wish people made the ultimate Jesus story into a movie, a movie based on the The Grand Inquisitor story in The Brothers Karamazov.

    I don’t know how making this kind of film can ever be pro-semitic.

    There’s one incident of Jesus “cursing” something in the Gospels, where after searching for fig they come on a tree to find it barren and Jesus angrily curses the tree to wither permanently. A very strange moment in the Mathew Gospel. The only film that includes this is Pasolini’s who was insistent that the film include everything from the Gospel. But aside from that, there’s nothing else and how a Jew can curse his own tribe is beyond me.

  2. Well, Christians have a way of forgetting that Jesus was Jewish… A story that always stuck with me was from one of the WWI tribunals where conscientious objectors had to stand trial to see whether they had to go to war or not. The judges were prominent local citizens, often astonishing in their ignorance, one of whom claimed that “Jesus Christ was British to the core.”

    Veidt has a line about Christ not recognizing his modern followers, referring to the Inquisition but with interesting possible wider applications, and then he’s redeemed at the end — but it’s a Christian redemption, presumably.

  3. Pasolini’s segment of Love and Anger is his rendition of the fig tree gospel. In it Ninetto is walking down the Via Nazionale — happy as always. Suddenly the voice of God (Bernardo Bertolucci) reminds him of all the horror in the world to which he’s supposedly indifferent. Ninetto tells God he never knew about any of this. But God kills him anyway. (I consider this film to be Pasolini’s most perfect expression of his love for Ninetto.)

    The fig tree gospel is central to Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

  4. Believers in a benevolent God seem to have a marvelous skill for just not thinking about the problem of suffering. And yet many good Christians devote a lot of time to alleviating it. Very strange.

    I wish Paul Verhoeven could make his Jesus film, but let’s face it: not going to happen.

    A friend once prank-emailed a website specializing in movie reviews from a born-again perspective, saying he’d been deeply moved by Pasolini’s Gospel film, but that he’d since been troubled by inappropriate thoughts about the leading man. I don’t think they replied.

  5. Yeah, Russell uses it to categorically deny Jesus any role of perfection assigned to him over the centuries. Although I don’t think Pasolini used that for the same reason in his treatment of it. It’s meant to be ambivalent in Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, what Gesu(as he’s called in Italian) could do and how that fascinates and terrifies his followers but the key thing is he doesn’t take that path and never exercises any totalitarian hold on his followers even if it could have happened.

    The issue of suffering is at the core of one of the best novels I have read recently, Shusaku Endo’s Silence(which has a foreword by Martin Scorsese, who plans to make a movie of it and hopefully will). That’s a film set in 17th Century Japan’s historical backdrop(though it doesn’t feel like a period story at all!) and the issue of suffering is the core of Endo’s revisioning of Catholcism. Graham Greene(who loved Endo’s book) also dealt with that in his masterpiece, The End of the Affair(which was made into a great film by Neil Jordan). Greene felt that Catholicism should never be conservative and that it was at it’s core a religion for outsiders, losers and the defeated. Incidentally, Ted Turner used that same argument to dismiss Christianity calling it a “religion for losers” which is ironic in all sorts of ways.

  6. I think Turner was probably mad that his wife, Jane Fonda, got born-again on him.

    There’s already a pretty good film of the Endo book, but Scorsese’s take would be very interesting. But he’s been putting it off for YEARS now.

    I think my favourite Catholic movie is The Devils, made at the exact time Ken Russell was losing his faith. It’s nicely balanced.

  7. A film that seriously deals with the Silence of God would obviously be a tough sell in today’s climate when for most people, Gibson’s torture porn is the only mainstream alternative. In the 50s and 60s, when God’s Silence was a key theme in art cinema – Fellini(La Strada), Bunuel(Nazarin) and of course Bergman, their competition was childish but mostly inoffensive stuff from DeMille and company. The only other film-makers sufficiently marked with Catholicism to do a film on the Endo novel would be Abel Ferrara and Terence Davies. Then it’s always going to be hard for an American film-maker especially one as famous as Scorsese to get someone to find the climate to do it in. In fact the only other mainstream American film to seriously touch on it is Ford’s film maudit, The Fugitive adapted from Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

    For me Bunuel is the ultimate Catholic film-maker. Orson Welles(who was also raised Catholic, though it never shows in his movies) concurs, “He hates God like a true Christian!” is what he said. Welles otherwise found religious subjects in films vulgar which is why he insisted at first to be uncredited for his narration of King of Kings(which is a very secular but respectful treatment of the subject). As for the greatest Catholic film, it was made by a Calvinist – it’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

  8. I gather that up through the 1930s the British film censor banned both images of Jesus and audio of his (His) words. An attitude that is actually more congenial to Jewish notions of God (which I’m supposed to write G-d even though G-d’s name isn’t really G-d, but this particular sequence of Latin letters should not be typed anyway, and that’s because — I think I’m too sleepy to figure out why again) than it is to the Christian “just slap a picture of God up on that ceiling, Mike” approach. Sexy Jesuses OK everywhere but in movies?

    This movie is a little bit like Groundhog Dog, except without the good (but on the other hand, with Conrad Veidt). One of the baffling things about it is that although you do have to conclude that the redemption at the end is a Christian one (because the movie assumes that Jesus is God and Christianity is, like, true) the act that leads to redemption seems to be the Jew’s affirmation that he is, in fact, a Jew. He’s redeemed because he dies on a cross (sorta) as a Jewish martyr to the intolerance of Christ’s followers.

    I guess when you have a Jewish director trying to make a philosemitic film out of “The Wandering Jew,” you have to expect some oddities.

  9. Ferrar’s Mary is a teriffic Jesus film (and his very best, IMO.) Juliette Binoche plays an actress with the worst case of “I just can’t shake this role” on record. We see her appearing in the last scene of a Jesus epic directed by Matthew Modine (playing Abel, of course.) She takes off for the Holy Land and cuts off all contact with all friends, family, agents, etc. Meanwhile in New York Forrest Whittaker is hosting a talk show dealing with the discarded gospels — most specifically the gospel of Mary Magadalene (who Binoche played in the movei-within-the-movie.) He has religious scholars on the show discussing the fact that Mary Magdalene was a disciple. In her gispel Jesus delcares that he is NOT “The Son of God” but simply a rabbi. That she was a woamn was bad enough. But the fact that according to her Jesus wasn’t divine was Too Much for the Catholic church. So her gospel was tossed aside, and in the official “New Testament” she appears as a weird and problematic figure — instead of the 13th disciple.

    Marion Cottilard plays Whittaker’s produce, and Heather Graham his worreid wife.

    Not To Be Missed!

  10. Ah, Jerusalem Syndrome! A great subject for a movie. I love weird syndromes. Someone told me there’s a whole ward in Paris devoted to Japanese tourists with Paris Syndrome.

    A kind friend made me a copy of Mary, which I must watch.

    Ken Russell is much on my mind because I just got my hands on a REAL rarity of his…

    Verhoeven, like Scorsese, studied for the priesthood. The Fourth Man, which he claims is partly a parody of an art film, is pretty good fun, but it would be fascinating to see him take on the subject with gloves off. But he might not survive the experience — are Christians actually less dangerous than Moslems? Maybe they’re a little harder to get going, but once they’re going…

    Katya, what you say rings a bell and rings true — no depictions of Christ, and intertitles only for speech. I wonder if DeMille’s King of Kings was banned here. Somehow I doubt it — the rule was probably only enforced for home product. There was also a rule against showing British officers in a bad light.

    The lesson: all censorship is political censorship.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    Certainly LOVE AND ANGER appears to be Pasolini’s unique version of “You only kill the one you love” with ironic parallels to that well known story in “The Good Book.”

    Yes, Katya, contradictions occur in THE WANDERING JEW but like JEW SUSS Veidt dies as a martyr to civilized Christian intolerance. His act of identifying with the Jewish people in his third marriage and his response to a Nazi question about nationality – “Ich bin Juden” (sic?)- is well known.

  12. Christopher Says:

    “but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise”
    1 Corinthians 1:27
    One of my favorites :o))

  13. “are Christians actually less dangerous than Moslems?”

    Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

    9/11 vs. The Crusades.

  14. I know which Ken Russell rarity you mean! Hoping to watch it tonight. I’ve been long looking forward to Mary – thought I’d double-feature it with Godard’s Hail Mary, also with Juliette Binoche.

  15. Well the Crusades, plus the latest extravaganza in Iraq, certainly killed far more people than 9/11. Yet my parents still don’t get it when I say we should be more afraid of our government than of terrorists.

    Watched the Russell, wrote about it… check this space Thursday.

  16. Fundamental Islam of the kind we see today is a very recent phenomenon and largely a reaction to Western Imperialism or western ignorance. A good example is the case of the Danish cartoons which became this big issue about free speech and censorship in Europe. Absolutely no one, with the exception of Noam Chomsky, came forward to say that those cartoons were in fact racist to begin with and should have been censored and curtailed by its editors(who in fact censored and curtailed a Jesus caricature weeks before). It also must be said that Islam is the only one that acknowledges Christians and Jews as “peoples of the book” with whom they simply have differences of opinion, as opposed to the Christians(the Jews never had any interest in proselytizing or converting others to their religion so they are included out). Of course none of this excuses the fundamentalists but it should be pointed that they are a minority, a very vocal minority whom the media is solely interested in listening to to the exclusion of all alternatives.

    Mary is a wonderful film, theology expressed through cinematic language and the cast is brilliant.

    British censorship objected to La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc because they felt it might upset the public on the British military.

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    How irreligious this thread has become!

  18. Christopher Says:

    Oscar Wilde was right…”the true mystery of the world is the visible,not the invisible..”

  19. Another fine sketch, Simon!

    I read quite a few comments in the British media that condemned the Danish cartoons, but those weren’t published until chaos had erupted: because that’s when the story went international. The trouble is, if a major paper printed racist cartoons about black people in Britain, there would be widespread outrage but nobody, probably, would die. It’s the religious angle that stirred up hysteria.

    A lot of the trouble seems to come from this curious idea that God, the omnipotent creator of the universe, needs defending. The idea that the appropriate defense against criticism or low insult is violence is another problem.

    I basically believe we should be free to insult each other and each others’ gods as viciously as we like, with physical violence ruled out as a response.

    Of course, moslem fundamentalism is largely a reaction to legitimate fear of the west’s ongoing imperialist actions. The longterm solution lies with us.

  20. Thanks again, David… Crikey, are we really sure where moslem fundamentalism is coming from? Western foreign policy certainly contributes to its popularity, but what has that to do with the blowing up of Buddhas? Rhetorical question I guess.

  21. I mean there is absolutely no reason why a legitimate fear of western imperialism need find expression in religious fundamentalism, or indeed religious anything. It’s like saying that German anti-semitism was largely a reaction to the Depression, when in fact that’s rubbish. The depression was something seized upon by anti-semites.

  22. Yeah so anyway, Trog…

  23. Dog spelled backwards is God. Trog spelled backwards is Gort. Coincidence?

  24. You may be on to something, Katya.

    Simon, the key may lie in the distinction between leaders and followers. Followers who feel threatened by the Depression, or Western aggression or Western liberalism may be drawn to any philosophy that offers simple or dramatic answers. Those philosophies are developed by people with their own motivations…

    But blowing up the Buddhas makes sense as a simple expression of xenophobia and fear of foreign ideas, which is SOP in most organized religions. Fortunately, true Buddhists don’t care about the Buddhas because they acknowledge that everything is temporary and material things don’t count for much…

  25. DeMille’s King of Kings was shown extensively in UK. In ‘Silent Magic’, Ivan Butler’s account of early cinema going in this country, he describes it as ‘one of the most discussed productions of the year’ (1927). He goes on to say ‘The Super cinema in which we first saw it, after being greeted by much quivering organ-playing and then regaled with an elaborate stage prelude of awesome solemnity, seemed actually to smell more like a cathedral than our friendly picture house. Perhaps, indeed, it did, an astute management having wafted incense around to ensure that we were in the proper frame of mind and would converse, if at all, only in hushed whispers.”

  26. Well it’ll be very interesting if we can establish that the “no Christ” rule applied only to British productions. Like “There’s a certain vulgarity we expect from Hollywood but we mustn’t have anyone doing it here.” But it’s possible the JC ban came in after KOK and before TWJ. Perhaps that Tom Dewe Mathews book holds the answer…

  27. David, you made me curious, so I’ve done a little research.

    When the BBFC came into existence on 1st January 1913, it had only two specific rules – no nudity and no portrayal of Christ. But From the Manger to the Cross (made in US and directed by Sidney Olcott) had opened in two venues in London in Dec 1912 and ran for 3 months, so was still running when the BBFC began. The Bishop of London described it as a beautiful film. Despite this, the BBFC did not drop its ban on the portrayal of Christ until well after WWII. (Incidentally the BBFC’s early records were destroyed by a German bomb in May 1941.)

    I learned all this from “The BBFC: Film censorship in Britain, 1896 – 1950” by James C. Robertson which you can access via Google Books.

  28. Fascinating. And I’m still curious to know more. If I can get my hands on the Mathews book today I will.

    When Richard Attenborough prepared Gandhi, some people thought it was wrong to show the great man on screen. One well-meaning soul wrote to RA to suggest that MG be portrayed by “a moving light.” Attenborough either replied, or was tempted to reply, “I’m not making fucking Tinkerbell.”

  29. I’m also curious to know more, especially as it’s still not clear if the ban on Christ’s depiction only applied to UK filmmakers. If it didn’t, how come King of Kings got shown? Maybe the answers went up in smoke in May ’41, but I’ll keep looking.

  30. This article:

    cites a piece by R. Herring in a 1936 issue of Sight and Sound which says King of Kings “had to have a special license to be shown in England and then not at a cinema.” But Ivan Butler clearly saw it at a cinema; his description seems to me too vivid to deny.

  31. Mathews just says that the film bypassed the BBFC, which might be due to its being a foreign production. Or maybe it played in special places. Butler describes a “super-cinema” — maybe a converted theatre? but with an organ. Hmm. The special license sounds like the simplest and most plausible explanation.

    For many years, movies could be shown without BBFC certificates, if passed by the local council. So maybe some districts could show the film in cinemas. Complicated stuff!

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