I’ve chosen to cover my list of Ten Jesus Films You’ve Never Seen in chronological order. So, first up is Golgotha, a French film from 1933 directed by Julien Duvivier. It’s a splendid, though rarely seen picture which carries the unique distinction of being the first film on the life of Christ with sound. Alternately known (primarily in the United States) as Ecce Homo or Behold the Man, Golgotha is an outstanding achievement from a decade that saw little development in the Jesus film genre.
While one can only speculate as to the reasons behind the relative lack of Jesus film production in the 1930s, it may have something to do with The King of Kings. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1928 epic is a towering achievement of the silent era—a large-scale production that saw blockbuster success and remains to this day the most well-known Jesus film of the pre-sound age. Its scale may well have left filmmakers of the time scratching their heads as to what to do next. Duvivier, however, had an answer.
After the pageantry of The King of Kings, the acclaimed director takes a decidedly more realistic, down to Earth approach with Golgotha. The opening scene of the film is a long pan across the Jerusalem skyline. It’s a rear-projection shot with live actors passing in front, presumably on a conveyor belt, as if they just happen to be caught in front of the camera as we pass by. They are unaware of our presence, milling about their daily lives, having conversations, walking from place to place or just sitting about. It’s an impressive visual effects shot for the era and sets up two aesthetic threads in Golgotha that will set it apart from more spectacular predecessors. First, Duvivier wishes to show us people as they were, responding naturally and organically to the events that will take place. Second, he will use expert camera work and beautiful visual effects, not to be gawked at as spectacle, but to serve the narrative and bring us into the world of the film.
This scene is followed by an impressive sequence that takes us up to a window in the Temple, through a diamond shape in the grating covering the window and into a long tracking shot around the room, following the dialogue and movements of the actors as the Sanhedrin discuss this new teacher that has arisen. This style persists as long tracking shots take us outside to show people thronging outside Jerusalem’s gates, breaking branches off trees and passing them around, preparing for Jesus’ arrival. We see them from Jesus’ point of view as they bow down and call out praises, the audio very clearly live and untouched, raw and real. Duvivier wants us to experience the story of Christ as participative observers, not looking upon staged events, but surrounded, even engulfed by them.
He reveals Jesus from a distance, almost blocked from view by his disciples and never clearly showing his face until after he has driven the merchants from the Temple, a scene in which even herds of livestock are let loose. The camera movements throughout the film are exquisite, tracking through rooms and around characters with an immediacy that recalls Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 classic La Passion de Jean d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc).
Featuring powerful performances by Harry Baur as Herod and others such as Charles Granval as Ciaphas, the film almost pushes the character of Jesus (Robert Le Vigan) off to its edges as it focuses on the hysteria and confusion surrounding Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, followed by his trial and death. Le Vigan holds his own in the role, presenting a more stoic Christ, unmoved by the circumstances around him. But, in a film of passionate performances and engaging cinematography, Le Vigan’s performance almost gets lost in the shuffle.
This changes, however, as we get deeper into the Passion narrative. Le Vigan mostly maintains his stoic composure, but clearly communicates the humiliation of Jesus underneath his attempts to remain unresponsive. Le Vigan’s Jesus takes a terrible beating. Though his scourging takes place off-camera, we are in the room as it happens, watching the reactions of onlookers who are pressing their faces into a barred but otherwise open window. Their expressions of sadistic glee, shock and horror tell the story along with the sound of the beating.
We see soldiers bringing their whips down harshly, but laboriously, as though it is just another day’s hard work. We never see the whips touch Jesus’ body. We don’t have to. Le Vigan is physically committed to the role and shows us Christ’s exhaustion and pain. Later, as he falls and is crushed against a wall behind his massive cross, we are struck with both the brutal pain of the moment and the Savior’s complete inability to fight back.
Golgotha is an intelligent, engaging and excellently executed film. Though Le Vigan’s Christ is perhaps too distant, too lacking in humanity and dimension, the film overall teems with sweaty, complex humanity and seems to set the tone for many Jesus films that would follow. This first Jesus film of the sound era seems to have set down a formula that others since have followed, blending an almost too distant image of Christ with an immersive realism in the world around him. It is almost the proto-Jesus film of the next twenty or thirty years, seeming at times to have even influenced films as recent as The Passion of the Christ.
Whether its influence was direct or indirect, it is difficult to tell, but it seems to have had a far-reaching effect on the genre, even as it is largely unknown today. I’ll have more to say on this film in the future, particularly if I’m ever able to view it with English subtitles.
The next film I’ll be looking at in this series is Pier Paolo Paolini’s 1964 Italian film Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo. Look for it soon!