The Bootleg Files: The Wandering Jew

BOOTLEG FILES 675: “The Wandering Jew” (1933 British feature starring Conrad Veidt and Peggy Ashcroft).

LAST SEEN: On GodTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A perceived lack of commercial value.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A U.S. release is highly unlikely.

The first feature-length production of the sound film era to incorporate Jesus Christ into the on-screen characters was not inspired by the Gospels. Instead, it was based on a weird legend that originated in the 13th century and percolated across Europe well into the early 20th century.

The concept of the Wandering Jew involved a Jewish witness to the Crucifixion who denigrated Jesus while He carried the cross to Calvary. In this tale, Jesus responded to the insult in a decidedly non-Christ-like manner: He put a curse on the smart-aleck that locked him in immortality under the day of the Second Coming. Thus, the Jewish man was forced to move endlessly from land to land before people got wise to the circumstances of his inability to grow old and die.

The Wandering Jew legend turned up over the centuries in works by such notable writers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, O. Henry and Guillaume Apollinaire. Georges Melies created a short film in 1904 based on the story, and British playwright E. Temple Thurston created a script that was the basis of a 1923 silent film. In 1933, Britain’s Twickenham Film Studios decided to brush off the Thurston drama for a sound film remake.

However, there were new issues in 1933 that did not exist during the silent era. British censors prevented any local production from having an on-screen actor giving a face or voice to the character of Jesus. Considering that Jesus was crucial to this particular story, that might seem like a game-killer. Furthermore, the ascension of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s chancellor cast a shadow on any film about European Jewry – especially one with a negative depiction of the Jewish population.

To its credit, Twickenham scored a casting coup by bringing in Conrad Veidt to play the title character in its version of “The Wandering Jew.” Veidt gained international recognition in 1920 as the homicidal somanbulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and he was among the first creative artists to emigrate from Germany when the Nazi Party took control. (Veidt’s wife Ilona Prager was Jewish and he refused to divorce her.) Veidt’s resettlement in Britain would be used to push back at any potential charges of an anti-Semitic tone to “The Wandering Jew,” while the actor’s pronounced German accent also separated his character in the film from the other gentile characters, who spoke with posh British theatrical accents.

“The Wandering Jew” opens in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ death. Veidt plays Matathias, a wealthy Jewish aristocrat whose lover Judith is dying in his house from some undefined illness. Judith begs Matathias to fetch Jesus to cure her, but he is resistant. “The son of a carpenter – what does he know about healing?” Matathias sneers.

Matathias goes out and witnesses an off-screen Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha. He calls to Jesus to heal Judith, and a light shines on him from Jesus’ direction while an intertitle flashes on screen that reads, “Return the woman to her husband and she will be cured.” (This was the filmmakers’ way of circumventing the British censors’ ban on a walking-talking Jesus.) The crowd watching Jesus’ fate laughs at Matathias, who returns home but later returns to watch Jesus’ journey to Golgotha. Matathias spits in the direction of Jesus, and the off-screen light flashes on Matathias again while another intertitle flashes on screen that reads, “I will not wait for you but you shall wait for me until I come for you again.” Matathias returns to his home and finds Judith has died. Grief-stricken, he takes out his dagger to kill himself, but his act of self-immolation is stopped when the dagger breaks in half upon impacting his flesh. Matathias realizes the meaning of Jesus’ curse – he is to live forever until Jesus returns to the world.

The film then flashes forward some 1,300 years, when a mysterious knight is following the Crusaders in their effort to conquer the Holy Land. An elderly Jewish man approaches the Crusaders’ camp – he is referred to as “Jew” by the knights – and identifies the stranger in armor as the Wandering Jew of legend. Matathias is now clean-shaven, but looks the same as he did on the day of the Crucifixion – and he is still a lascivious wolf on the prowl for married women. When the wife of a Crusader falls under his spell, Matathias tells as servant, “Should the husband follow, I would not like even his death to disturb me.” However, this rendezvous goes badly – the woman recoils after making lip contact and cries out, “To think that mine have touched those lips that spat on Christ!” She then discovers her husband is dead outside of Matathias’ tent. His cover blown, Matathias makes an exit and turns up two centuries later as a Sicilian merchant.

Life in Sicily is not copacetic for Matathias: his wife has become an obsessed Catholic who wants to enter a convent when their young son dies from an adder’s bite. When he tries to convince his wife not to become a nun, she responds: “If you were to kill me now, I should still be with Him.” Realizing that Jesus was still horning in on his fun, Matathias moves on – and turns up in late 15th century Spain during the Inquisition as a doctor. He treats a prostitute for an ankle injury, but through a strange turn of events he winds up before the inquisitors’ court and admits to being a Jew. The Inquisition ties him to a stake in a crucifixion position, but Matathias makes his peace with Jesus and proclaims, “Thou hast come to me…again.” Jesus appears as a flash of overhead light and releases Matathias from the curse. Matathias dies peacefully at the stake and is spared the pain of the Inquisition’s fire.

The style of “The Wandering Jew” is typical of a many British films of the early 1930s: a creaky production marred by stagnant visuals and a broad acting that might have worked on stage but seems overdone when magnified by the camera. Veidt’s proficiency in English was not completely achieved and much of his line delivery comes across as either uncertain or sterile. Future British screen icons as Frances L. Sullivan and Felix Aylmer were among Matathias’ persecutors in the Spanish segment, while a very young and sexy Peggy Ashcroft played the prostitute that sped the title character’s ultimate demise – but none of these great talents could spin gold from the leaden dialogue they were handed.

From a contemporary standpoint, it is difficult to appreciate the resolution of “The Wandering Jew,” with Matathias belatedly embracing the spirit of Jesus. The forced conversion of Jews into Christianity has been a sore point of interfaith relations for years, and the notion that the Jew could only receive heavenly absolution by forsaking his religious heritage in favor of the message of Jesus has not transitioned into the 21st century. From a Christian standpoint, the notion that Jesus would aggressively and sadistically punish His adversaries is antithetical to the core concept of the Gospels.

British audiences in 1933 viewed a 110-minute version of the film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) sought the American distribution for the film, but the Hollywood censors at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America – those humorless souls behind the Production Code – where aghast at the film when it was brought across the Atlantic in 1934. Jewish advocacy groups got wind of the film and vocally agitated against its exhibition, and MGM decided to drop plans for a theatrical release. A truncated 78-minute version was approved by the censors for U.S. release, but no major studio would touch it. A tiny art house distributor named Olympic Pictures acquired the production and gave it the briefest and scantest of releases.

To date, “The Wandering Jew” was never commercially released in any U.S. home entertainment format. One collector-to-collector service offers a scratchy unauthorized copy on DVD, and a faith-driven YouTube-style site called GodTube has the film stretched across an unauthorized six-part presentation.

If “The Wandering Jew” was created with good intentions, the resulting film took the work down a familiar road paved with good intentions. The film will be offensive to those who offend easily, but it will disappoint those who hopefully wondered if it could have been a call for tolerance during a time when few people on either side of the Atlantic were willing to bravely demand tolerance.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, now in its third season.