Film History Essentials: La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ (1898)

(English: The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ)

What it’s about:

The life of Christ is depicted from infancy to resurrection in 13 brief scenes, focused mainly on the events commemorated during the Christian Holy Week.

Why it’s essential:

In 1633, central Europe was right in the midst of the long conflict that would eventually be known as the Thirty Years’ War. One of the war’s costliest aspects was the famine and disease that followed in its wake. As Swedish forces fought a campaign across Bavaria, the bubonic plague came to the small town of Oberammergau, 50 miles south of Munich, and about 10 miles from the present-day Austrian border. As the plague ravaged the town, its desperate citizens made a vow: If God would spare them from further suffering, they would show their gratitude by dedicating one year out of every decade to the production of a passion play.

According to local lore, no more of the townspeople died of plague, and the people of Oberammergau have put on a passion play once every ten years since, beginning in 1634. Starting in 1680, they began staging their performances at the dawn of each decade (with the exception of the 300th anniversary in 1934, and the 350th in 1984). They have only rarely cancelled or postponed the show (for example, during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, World War II in 1940, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Beginning in the mid-19th century, with a revived interest in medieval passion plays, Oberammergau began attracting the attention of the rest of Christendom with its production.

It’s important to acknowledge that, historically, passion plays have an association with blood libel and other acts of violent antisemitism. In the case of the Oberammergau play, which has its roots in medieval European traditions, and which celebrated its 300th anniversary with a visit from Adolf Hitler amidst the rise of the Nazi Party, that reputation of overt antisemitism is justified. Only in its most recent performances has the Passion Play of Oberammergau taken real steps to address decades of criticism and centuries of prejudice in its depiction of Jews.

Strangely enough, it was a Jewish entrepeneur, Salmi Morse (see right), who set off a chain of events that would lead the Oberammergau show to intersect with early film history. Accounts of Morse’s life are rife with conflicting details, thanks in part to the fantastical stories he constructed of his own exploits as a supposed war hero, learned scholar, and globetrotting adventurer. Even though many of the experiences he claimed to have had seem never to have happened, he was an outsized figure who lived an unusually colorful and varied life.

He was born “Samuel Moss” to German-Jewish parents in 1826 (possibly in England, or possibly in Germany, moving to England soon after). He achieved financial success managing a hotel in the midst of the Australian gold rush of 1851. Eventually, he ended up in San Francisco in the mid-1870s, where he had an idea, perhaps inspired by his conversion to Christianity, that would ultimately lead to his downfall. He wrote “The Passion: A Miracle Play in Ten Acts,” and set out to realize what was apparently the first-ever depiction of Jesus by an actor on an American stage.

Morse had a vision of producing a true work of art that could be performed regularly, in the tradition of Oberammergau. He presented his script to the Archbishop of San Francisco, revised it based on the critiques he received, then marketed the play as approved by the Catholic church. Morse and his partners prepared a large and elaborate production, starring James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene) as Jesus, and featuring a cast of hundreds. It was to premiere on 3 March 1879.

Local Protestant leaders (somewhat predictably) believed that staging the story in a secular theater, and turning a profit no less, was profane. And the approval of the Archdiocese didn’t help at all. They got the city to propose an ordinance (not repealed until 1938) banning all commercial, theatrical depictions of Christ. However, it wasn’t enacted in time to stop the opening performances, and the production was regarded as extremely successful, both in quality and reverential treatment of its subject, by those who went to see it. Local rabbis opposed the ordinance, and the closing of the play, as acts of censorship.

Nevertheless, after the ordinance was passed, the play closed down voluntarily for a few weeks, but then reopened two days after Easter. At the end of that performance, an officer of the San Francisco police went backstage and arrested O’Neill for impersonating Jesus Christ. All legal efforts to continue the play’s run went nowhere, and Morse had no choice but to close the show at a tremendous financial loss.

But Morse was not beaten yet. He decided to try again on the opposite side of the country. He found a new backer for “The Passion” in New York City, the center of American theater, and prepared to open on 7 December 1880. In response, seemingly the entire city united against him. Not only political and religious leaders, but also the media and many in the theatrical world. His backer was forced to withdraw the play before even one performance.

Morse spent the next three years unsuccessfully fighting the legal injunctions against the opening of his play. He tried to pass off performances of the play as “private dress rehearsals,” attempted to open in other cities, and converted a church into the “Temple Theater” in an effort to stage it himself, all to no avail. In 1884, he was found floating in the Hudson River, dead of an apparent suicide. According to Charles Musser: “The fiasco was indelibly imprinted on the memory of every amusement entrepreneur.”

The audience at Oberammergau, 1880

Curiously, only four days after Morse’s cancelled premiere, famed photographer and lecturer John L. Stoddard gave a presentation in New York entitled “Ober-Ammergau’s Passion Play.” He included several dozen stereopticon slides that he had taken of the village’s 1880 show. Reportedly attended by many of the same people who had condemned Morse’s play, Stoddard’s lecture received rave reviews. Ten years later, when the Passion Play of Oberammergau was again performed, a number of traveling lecturers successfully followed Stoddard’s lead. Again, Musser: “The possibilities of using motion pictures to present a similar program were obvious to everyone.”

The first filmmaker to adapt a story from the Bible was the sometimes-pornographer Albert Kirchner (pseudonym “Léar”). Commissioned by the French Catholic church, he filmed a 12-scene Passion du Christ in early 1897. Soon, filmmakers in America began to consider the possibilities of Bible films. Still, no one had forgotten Salmi Morse and his ill-fated passion play. The first American productions decided it would be safest to follow in the footsteps of Stoddard, as well. Or, at least, to appear to do so:

Catalogues published at the turn of the twentieth century by film production companies show that references to Oberammergau are practically constant in the marketing materials for Passion Play films, particularly in the case of American films. […] What better way for a film producer to play Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of this problem of the representation of Christ using animated pictures than to film, or to pretend to have filmed (the situation is the same either way), a Passion Play performance? […] What better way for the agent responsible for the production of a filmic Passion Play to be cleared of all responsibility than to take on only the framing of the event, something that is the work of the camera operator […], thereby leaving the responsibility for staging the show to another agent external to the film and not part of the world of film production […]?

André Gaudreault, “The Passion of Christ: A Form, a Genre, a Discourse,” translated by Timothy Barnard in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)

The Oberammergau play was already well-known and accepted by the American public, but there was a timing problem: The last performance, in 1890, happened while motion picture technology was still being developed, and the next was still a few years away. One possible solution presented itself when Charles Smith Hurd, the Lumière brothers’ American representative, discovered a passion play in Bohemia that had been put on since 1816 by the villagers of Horitz, a community 65 miles northeast of Prague (present-day Hořice, Czechia).

Scene from the 1908 performance in Horitz

Charmed by the “simplicity” and “sincerity” of the local production, Hurd made a deal with the Horitz players, and got financial backing from New York producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger. (Although Hurd had an association with the Lumières, and footage was filmed with a cinematograph, they had no involvement with the production or exhibition.) The Horitz Passion Play premiered in Philadelphia on 22 November 1897.

Although the project included over 20 minutes of footage, the show was far more than simply a motion-picture. The Horitz Passion Play was a 90-minute multimedia extravaganza that also featured lantern-slides, an accompanying lecture, and live religious music, both played and sung. The choice of a Philadelphia premiere by the show’s New York backers was deliberate, as well. After a little more than a month, the show moved to Boston, then opened in Baltimore, and finally appeared in Rochester before arriving in New York City in the midst of Lent.

The idea, obviously, was to sail the program in on a wave of positive press, but in the meantime, someone else had landed an even bolder stroke. Richard Hollaman, president of the Eden Musee in New York City, had wanted the film rights to the Horitz production, but had lost out to Klaw and Erlanger. After visiting the show’s Philadelphia premiere, he decided to one-up the competition. By February, a full month before The Horitz Passion Play was due in New York City, the Eden Musee was screening their own production: The Passion Play of Oberammergau.

Hollaman was intentionally vague about the connection between his production and the real Oberammergau. As Musser points out: “Just as putting on a boxing match was illegal but showing films of such a match was fine, the discovery that an actor was playing Christ for money might have created a public outcry even though the exhibition of such films would not.” Hollaman had the film shot in secret on the roof of the Grand Central Palace in New York, but anyone who didn’t know better could certainly have gotten the impression that it was filmed in Bavaria.

Scene from the 1898 Hollaman film

To those who did know better, Hollaman implied that his film was effectively a re-enactment of the actual Oberammergau passion play. In reality, he used Salmi Morse’s “The Passion” script, and even acquired the old costumes from Morse’s play that had sat in storage for over a decade. Not everyone was fooled, but it didn’t matter. The show was such a success that Hollaman sent it out on tour. Much like The Horitz Passion Play, these shows featured about 20 minutes of film footage supplemented by an hour or more of spoken lecture and slides.

Around this time, Kirchner’s Passion du Christ also made its way to America as part of a lecture by the Reverend Thomas Dixon (author of The Clansman, which would later be adapted into The Birth of a Nation). In addition, Philadelphia-based Sigmund Lubin, notorious for producing knock-offs of (or flat-out pirating) his competitors’ films, started circulating his own version of The Passion Play of Oberammergau, shot in his backyard. Into the midst of this sudden ubiquity of passion films came Thomas Edison, wielding the results of a legal victory he had been after for over six years.

On 31 August 1897, Edison was finally issued the broad patent for the kinetograph that he had sought ever since he first filed on 24 August 1891. This potentially granted him significant proprietary rights over motion pictures in the United States, or at least a basis on which to file legal action. Anyone who wished to contest his claims would face years of complex court proceedings against an opponent with deep pockets and widespread fame and credibility. Among Edison’s first targets were Hollaman, Klaw, and Erlanger, though Lubin seems to have temporarily escaped by virtue of being located outside of the immediate area of New York.

Hollaman folded almost immediately and became one of Edison’s licensees, and the others surrendered soon after. This meant, among other things, that none of the men retained exclusive exhibition rights to their films:

Although the Horitz and Eden Musee passion-play films were initially offered to exhibitors only in complete sets, they were soon sold on a scene-by-scene basis so that exhibitors could purchase and then organize individual scenes into any combination that they desired. In some cases, an exhibitor used films made by more than one producer, purchasing the scenes he liked best or adding to his collection when finances permitted. Many exhibitors showed passion-play films, but no two programs were exactly alike.

Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, p. 219

Sadly, none of the films mentioned above are known to have survived outside of a few fragments. The oldest existing Bible film is the Lumières’ La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ, which premiered in Lyon on Christmas Day, 1898. It was directed by Louis Lumière and Georges Hatot, and starred Hatot’s frequent collaborator, Gaston Breteau. Alexandre Promio, who had returned permanently to Lyon after two years of traveling the globe with a cinematograph, operated the camera.

The Lumière scenes seem very much in the same style as descriptions of the earlier films. Specifically, this has the feel of a filmed play. Just like similar films in America, the scenes from Passion de Jésus-Christ were sold as individual titles, from which exhibitors could choose to buy all or only some, and then show them in whatever order they felt best suited their audience and program. Religious films like this one played a significant role in expanding the audiences for motion pictures, but they also offered another important commercial benefit: Theaters could show Bible films on Sundays, a day on which many venues would otherwise have been forced to remain closed.

What to watch for:

The “stage play” aesthetic of La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ is particularly noticeable from the sets, which are not only visibly unrealistic, but are also frequently rearranged and repurposed for different scenes. The final four scenes (showing the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection) all take place in exactly the same place. There are a few minor changes between the death and burial scenes, but it is clearly the same set. (This is also a set that appears in at least one other Lumière film, Combat sur la Voie Ferrée, from 1897, which depicts a battle from the Franco-Prussian War.)

The tree in the center of the frame is reused in several locations

In addition, one of the “buildings” where Jesus enters Jerusalem is clearly used again as part of the background when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. After Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is tried, and then returns to the exact same garden set to receive the crown of thorns and the cross (the scene is lit differently, probably due to being shot at a different time of day, but is obviously identical otherwise). Actually, the distinctive large “tree” that is the centerpiece of the garden set appears in five different scenes, only two of which seem intended to represent the same location.

The film consists of the following scenes:

#French TitleEnglish TitleLength
IL’Adoration des MagesThe Adoration of the Magi0:54
IILa Fuite en ÉgypteThe Flight into Egypt0:53
IIIL’Arrivée à JérusalemArrival in Jerusalem???
IVTrahison de JudasJudas’s Betrayal0:54
VRésurrection de LazareResurrection of Lazarus0:54
VILa CèneThe Last Supper0:53
VIIL’Arrestation de Jésus ChristThe Arrest of Jesus Christ0:53
VIIILa FlagellationThe Flogging0:53
IXLe Couronnement d’ÉpinesThe Crowning with Thorns0:49
XLa Mise en CroixThe Cross0:52
XILe CalvaireCalvary0:54
XIILa Mise au TombeauThe Burial0:53
XIIILa RésurrectionThe Resurrection0:49

All of these sound like very familiar scenes, although the choices of which to include (and the order of some of them) raises questions. For example, the film depicts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and then jumps all the way to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (a scene which, incidentally, is missing from all of the online versions of the film that are available). It’s also a bit odd to insert the resurrection of Lazarus between that scene and the Last Supper.

Upon watching individual scenes, though, some of these questions only grow. It’s important to remember that a 19th-century French Catholic filmmaker might have a very different take on a lot of things than, say, a 21st-century American evangelical audience. Also, modern audiences likely aren’t even aware how much their expectations of cinematic depictions of Jesus are informed at least as much by how those depictions have evolved over the past 125 years as they are by anything in the biblical text.

Lumière and Hatot are operating without any of that history. They’re drawing on an entirely different body of cultural texts. It’s clear, for example, that some visual and storytelling elements are inspired by medieval and/or artistic traditions that are not as widely-known as they once were. However, even accounting for all of that, some of the choices here seem to show an interesting, almost casual disregard for the details of the Gospel accounts.

One scene that is obviously drawn from extra-Biblical sources is La Fuite en Égypte. This scene features the most visually-arresting of the various sets, dominated by a large reproduction of the Sphinx. The top half is clearly painted onto the back wall, but the bottom half extends out, creating a space for Mary to climb up and settle in with the baby while Joseph tends to the donkey. There is an element of the backdrop that seems meant to simulate a halo-like glow surrounding mother and child once they’ve taken up their position, but of course it’s painted on and already visible as they enter the frame. The look of the scene seems to have come from Luc Olivier Merson’s 1879 painting, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (see left).

As the family prepares to rest, a group of Roman soldiers race up. Joseph places himself between them and his family, but the soldiers immediately fall to the ground. The source of this episode, if there is one, is unclear. However, it does resemble some accounts from the apocryphal infancy gospels. For instance, in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Holy Family takes refuge in an Egyptian temple, and all of the false gods fall on their faces before the baby Jesus and are shattered. The local ruler gathers an army and comes to the temple, but when they arrive, they all fall down and worship Jesus, as well.

Résurrection de Lazare is a scene that hews very closely to the biblical account, but a different biblical account. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (as described in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11), he accompanied a group, including Lazarus’s sisters, to the tomb where Lazarus had already been laid to rest for four days. He tells them to move the stone away, which they reluctantly do, and then he commands Lazarus to come out, and he walks out, still wrapped for burial. That is nothing like what happens in this scene.

Consider instead this account from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 7: Jesus is approaching the town of Nain, and he arrives at the gate just as a funeral procession is coming out. The deceased is the only son of a widowed woman, and Jesus takes pity on her. He approaches the bier on which the body is laid and commands the dead man to arise. The man sits up and begins talking. This is almost exactly how the scene is acted out in the film, even though the title of the scene identifies the dead man as Lazarus. Further, what seems to be the original catalogue description of the scene bafflingly describes the woman mourning as his wife (which is not accurate to either story, but could perhaps have resulted from some confusion about the woman in the latter story being a widow).

This sort of deviation is fairly typical of the film, which is full of details that are rearranged or recontextualized for reasons that aren’t always clear. In La Cène, the disciples have gathered at the table when Jesus appears suddenly in their midst, to their great surprise. Of course, this was how Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection in the biblical account. Judas also kisses Jesus during the Last Supper scene, which leads him to announce that someone will betray him. This prompts another disciple, to his left, to kiss him as well. When Judas betrays Jesus in the garden in the next scene, he just points him out to the guards.

A particularly notable aspect of this adaptation, though, is the absence of any Jewish religious leaders from the film. King Herod is the primary antagonist throughout. He watches jealously as Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. Judas comes to him to betray Jesus and receive his payment. Jesus is tried and flogged before him, and he is identified repeatedly as the person sending soldiers to arrest Jesus and to carry out the sentence. This has the effect of considerably simplifying a story that is being told in vignettes less than a minute long with no sound or intertitles. That may have been the primary purpose of these changes, but another consequence is that the forces responsible for Jesus’s torture and death are not visibly Jewish. King Herod and his Roman troops are behind everything.

It is not clear how many people would have seen this film in its entirety, with every scene in the order the producers apparently intended. Likely most would not have experienced it this way, and may even have watched scenes from this film mixed in with scenes from other Jesus films of the time. In fact, immediately after completing this film, Georges Hatot and Gaston Breteau are said to have made La Vie du Christ (also 1898) for Gaumont. (Some have claimed this film was made by Alice Guy, who also made a film entitled La Vie du Christ in 1906.) Though the 1898 Gaumont film seems to be lost now as well, its scenes could certainly have joined the pool available from the six Jesus films made in 1897-98.

However, for any audience that did experience all of La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ in this order, the structure is clear and straightforward. The first two scenes show Christ as someone who inspires worship by both the high-born and the low, and who is protected by divine favor from birth. We then see his growing influence among the people of Jerusalem, which sows the seeds of hatred and distrust with the king. We see him display his power in a foreshadowing of his ultimate resurrection, followed by the most familiar scenes commemorated on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Its departures from a strict depiction of the biblical text do not seem to have been controversial, and raise tantalizing questions about how the five lost films may have handled the same material.


~ by Jared on April 18, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ (1898)”

  1. […] The first genuine nudity on screen appeared later, under the guise of art and respectability. The first Jesus films claimed legitimacy by explicitly referencing (or even filming) established stage productions, and […]


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