by HELEN GEIB
The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, Our Savior is one of the great works of Christian devotional film and an early masterpiece of silent cinema. The filmmaking draws on traditions of sacred art and theater in the production design, art design, and performance style, while the visual technique is forward-looking and in many respects, years ahead of its time. The whole is a wondrous synthesis of the old arts with the new.
Subject and Technique
A Pathe Company production begun in 1902 and completed and released in 1905, The Life and Passion would be an impressive achievement for its period for its length alone. It is four reels (about 45 minutes) long from a period when films were rarely longer than a few minutes. The film is composed of 31 segments illustrating significant Gospel passages. The segments range in length from one scene to several scenes; scenes are of varying lengths. Each segment has an introductory title card; the first is “The Annunciation” and the last, “The Ascension.” There are no other titles. Each segment is a complete story told entirely through visual filmmaking.
Atypical of filmmaking of the period, characters move freely within, as well as freely entering and leaving, the frame of the shot. Figural groupings range from a single person to small groups to large crowd scenes The choreography of the actors’ movements is dynamic and highly varied.
Even more remarkable is that the camera moves. Most of the scene changes in the film are made through editing. However, when the filmmakers wanted to show that there was no interruption in spatial and temporal continuity between scenes, they used a long pan.
The construction of the Nativity sequence is illustrative. Although the sequence is composed of three scenes staged on two sets, it has no editing cuts. The sequence composition is scene (set A), pan, scene (set B), pan, scene (set A): 1) Mary and Joseph kneel in prayer over the infant Jesus in the manger; an arched entryway frames the right side of the set; 2) the camera pans right until the entryway frames the left side of the set; 3) the shepherds with their sheep and the magi with their attendants process into the frame from the upper right and gather at the threshold of the entryway; 4) the camera reverse pans to return to its initial position; 5) Mary and Joseph rise from prayer and welcome the shepherds and magi as they file in through the entryway and gather around the holy family for the adoration of the infant.
There are also a number of pans that follow a character – Joseph in one sequence and Jesus in several – as he walks from a first set to an adjoining second set to make a scene transition. For example, in the sequence of the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the first scene shows Jesus performing several healing miracles in a village street. He then walks to the right until he reaches a house, which he enters (the nature of the set design, discussed below, ensures that he is not lost to sight at any point). The camera pans right to follow him as he walks, matching his pace throughout the transitional movement. The second scene, showing the miracle that gives the sequence its title, takes place inside the house. In addition to establishing the uninterrupted spatial and temporal continuity between the two scenes, the pan focuses the viewer’s attention on Jesus by keeping him in the approximate center of the frame throughout the sequence. In contrast, the use of an edit to make the scene transition would either have sacrificed the continuity or to retain continuity, to have necessitated that Jesus walk out of the frame to the right to end the first scene and then walk back into it from the left to begin the second.
The most complex use of the technique is in the sequence of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus on the Mount of Olives. The sequence composition is scene (set A), pan following character, scene (set B), pan following character, scene (set C); the three sets are contiguous from left (set A) to center (set B) to right (set C). As in the daughter of Jairus sequence, the pans in this sequence follow and match pace with Jesus as he walks across the set, thus establishing uninterrupted continuity between scenes and keeping him in the center of the frame at all times. This sequence expands on the earlier one by adding a scene; the effect is of a pause in the pan for the duration of the second scene. In addition, the choreography of the action is also more complex. The pan in the earlier sequence simply follows Jesus as he walks from one place to another, albeit passing through a group of supplicants. In the Mount of Olives sequence, he actively interacts with some of the disciples during the walk followed by the first pan, while the second pan continues the relatively complex action surrounding Jesus’ arrest, an event begun in the second scene and completed in the third.
Another notable tool in the filmmakers’ stock of visual techniques is editing within a single scene, expanding on their frequent use of editing to move between scenes. The technique is used twice and follows the same pattern in each instance. The first is in the sequence of “Jesus given over to the people;” sequence composition is a single, lengthy crowd scene. Within the scene, there is a cut from the main shot to a medium close-up of Jesus in the “ecce homo” scene. This interim shot shows Jesus in half-figure and alone in the frame; he is posed in front of a neutral backdrop with the phrase “ecce homo” written on the backdrop, where it frames the crown of thorns. There follows a cut back to the main shot and the action resumes from the point of the first cut. In one of the film’s many places of intersection between innovation and tradition, the filmmakers used an advanced editing technique to insert a traditional, static devotional picture from the Passion cycle into the filmed version of the represented event.
Visual Design and Effects
The “ecce homo” is an atypical example of a recurring motif of the production design: the inspiration the film takes from Christian sacred art. The typical visual effect is scenes that resemble religious paintings brought to life. Notably, engravings on Christian themes by the popular nineteenth century French illustrator Gustave Dore were a principal influence.
The art design is from the theater. The sets and props are modeled on stage sets and many scenes play out against painted backdrops. For instance, a house may be represented by an open frame, or a rear wall and one side wall. It has no doors or shutters. There is likely to be no furniture in the room, or at most only the one or two pieces necessary to the figural arrangement within the scene. Landscape elements such as rocks and shrubs are often artificial. The theater-derived costuming is in sympathy with the art design.
The film makes frequent use of impressive, sometimes breathtaking, special effects: angels regularly materialize and vanish; in the flight to Egypt, the holy family disappears and reappears as an angel shields them from human sight to mislead their pursuers; Jesus walks on water and is raised from the tomb. The visual design of these scenes draws on theatrical traditions, but the effects are achieved by state-of-the-art trick photography. The effects resemble the work of renowned contemporary French filmmaker Georges Melies, and rival it in quality.
Many scenes are in color. The filmmakers used “Pathecolor,” the Pathe studio’s pioneering and expensive four-strip color process in which each frame of film was individually hand-colored with multiple colors. The result much more closely approximates color film than the dominant silent-era color tinting process in which an entire frame was tinted a single color (e.g., the film is blue-washed for night scenes), and which the filmmakers also used in a few scenes. Color was used often and lavishly in The Life and Passion. Crowd scenes where people wear cloaks of many different colors and designs and the lavishly colored depictions of heavenly hosts of angels are stunningly beautiful. Throughout the film, the use of color heightens the visual impression of scenes as animated religious paintings.
The last scene in the sequence of the flight into Egypt is a lovely example of the filmmakers’ visual artistry. The set is dominated by a painted backdrop that shows a cluster of pyramids on the right-hand side, seemingly in the far distance, and the sphinx on the left-hand side, seemingly near at hand and casting a shadow. The only props are some artificial rocks scattered about at the back of the set. The holy family, with Mary riding a mule and carrying the infant Jesus and Joseph leading the mule, enters the frame from the right. They halt in the center; Mary, cradling the infant, wearily dismounts and sits down on one of the rocks while Joseph tethers the mule and then lies down to rest. An angel, golden-winged and robed, materializes slightly behind and to the left of the family to call down God’s blessing upon them to conclude the scene.
The scene is evocative, symbolic, and beautiful. It assumes – as does the film in its entirety – an audience of informed Christians. It is not a dramatic re-enactment compromised by its theatricality, but rather an inspirational illustration of Scripture and meditation aid that draws on a wealth of artistic and cultural tradition. That the scene is non-naturalistic is self-evident, and as equally beside the point. Measuring The Life and Passion against a later-developed standard of naturalism in film is as meaningless as questions of naturalism in an icon of a saint or the ritual of the Mass.
Like the film’s art design, the performance style is based in theatrical tradition. “Theatrical acting” in a film usually carries the connotations stilted, static, and out of place in a “realistic” visual medium. Happily, none of the usual criticisms applies in this case. The performance style is vigorous and energetic; gestures and movements are bold and decisive. The idea that a theatrical acting style is inappropriate is manifestly inapt in a film where the entire visual design is inspired by painting and theater. A performance style that uses conventions of stage acting is peculiarly appropriate to the aesthetic design of The Life and Passion.
Aided by the casting, the performance by the actor playing Jesus as an adult emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. The actor must be the most ordinary looking man to ever play the role in a film. He is of average height and build, plain featured, and wears a bushy beard and disheveled hair. His robes are indistinguishable from the disciples’. He sits and walks among people, not set apart from them. He commands attention by his actions and words, not by his appearance or mannerisms.
Mary also is wonderfully human. Her humanity shines through especially at the Nativity and in her vigil before the Cross. When she and Joseph are turned away by the Bethlehem innkeeper, her attitude conveys mingled weariness, annoyance, impatience, and resignation. Prostrate before the Cross, her grief is a living grief.
Note: The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ is a bonus feature on the DVD of From the Manger to the Cross (1912) released by Image Entertainment. The visual quality is stunning; the accompaniment, on pipe organ, is merely adequate.