The Bootleg Files: La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ

BOOTLEG FILES 694: “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” (1903 French Biblical epic).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a 2012 commercial DVD release.

It is now a public domain work, but it wasn’t always.

It was included on a commercial DVD label, but its groundbreaking role in the fight against film bootlegging is why it is included here.

In the early years of the 20th century, the motion picture industry was plagued with incessant bootlegging of films. Shady characters who passed themselves off as producers and distributors would obtain copies of films and claim it as their own property, selling prints to unsuspecting exhibitors that were unaware of the original source material. This was particularly problematic with European filmmakers who did not have a U.S. sales presence and, thus, could not defend their property across the Atlantic.

Legal enforcement of cinematic intellectual property was still in its infancy at that time, so the threat of litigation was not the best strategy. The French company Pathé Frères came up with an odd yet effective solution when it was preparing the 1903 release of its major production “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ”: the company’s logo was a rooster, and everyone involved in the film industry was aware of that symbol. But rather than limiting the rooster logo to the opening credits, Pathé Frères made it part of the Biblical epic.

In watching “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” today, it is difficult not to fall into the habit of playing “spot the rooster logo,” as the symbolic fowl was stenciled on the walls and stairwells of many of the film’s scenes; it is also on the side of the Apostles’ boat when they view Jesus walking on water. Strangely, the film does not include a scene of Peter denying Jesus – that’s the one time when a rooster actually shows up in the Gospels.

None of the characters in the film called attention to the presence of a rooster stencil turning up endlessly as Jesus traveled across the Holy Land, and one can assume that most of the audiences in 1903 weren’t wondering about the rooster logo’s presence. However, the ubiquity of this symbol helped to keep “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” from being bootlegged endlessly – and for a number of years, other filmmakers borrowed this trick of sticking logos into the scenes, most notably D.W. Griffith in his 1912 Biograph production “The New York Hat.”

But what about the film that Pathé Frères was trying to protect? “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” was an unusual production for its time. Back when most films were only one-reel in length and produced on modest budgets, “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” spanned a rather lengthy 44 minutes and was presented with a large cast and extravagant production design – including an extensive hand-stenciling of scenes to achieve color cinematography effects.

“La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” breaks the story of Jesus into vignettes that are introduced with title cards heralding the event to be depicted. There was no intertitle dialogue breaks – which is understandable, as the story would have been extremely familiar to most audiences and intertitles would have disrupted the pageant depictions.

“La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” incorporates special effects throughout its presentation, starting with the Annunciation and the appearance of an angel standing on a cloud and followed by the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem above the shepherds. The double exposure style of the camera trickery calls to mind the charming cinematic magic of Georges Méliès, albeit with a more pronounced seriousness given the subject matter.

The film finds Mary and Joseph walking into Bethlehem in search of a place to stay – later New Testament films would have the pregnant Mary riding a donkey rather than traveling on foot. There is an unintentionally funny scene when the Wise Men and the shepherds crowd into the already-cramped manger to view the newborn Jesus – the presence of so many people in a tiny space recalls the classic stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.”

The film also oomphs up the story by adding a group of musically gifted angels to play for the infant Jesus as he rests in His crib. When Mary and Joseph flee into Egypt, the audience knows where they are because the Holy Family rests with the Sphinx and the pyramids behind them – this imagery would be used in many other Jesus-centric films, even though the Gospels makes no mention of these landmark sites.

Obviously, the entire life of Jesus could not be telescoped into the 44-minute running time, so Jesus’ adult life. The grown-up Jesus encounters John the Baptist and then turns water into wine at Cana before Mary Magdalene shows up cleaning His feet. A visually impressive (although somewhat eccentric) depiction of the Walking on Water finds Jesus ascending from the depths of a churning sea and walking casually with outstretched arms while the waves crash around Him. An unusual aspect of “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” is showing the Transfiguration with Moses (carrying the Ten Commandments) and Elijah appearing to converse with Jesus. Very few films about Jesus depict this segment of the New Testament, and its presence here is a centerpiece of the work.

Nearly all of “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” is shot with a static camera positioned far from the actors, as if a stage play is being recorded. There are two brief cutaway scenes: Jesus accepting His fate with the words “Ecce Homo” on a wall behind him and Veronica holding up the cloth that captured Jesus’ image after she wiped his face during his trek to Golgotha. The presence of Veronica and the cloth with Jesus’ image is not part of the canonical Gospels, but with this film it became part of the Jesus-centric cinema for years to come.

“La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” also offers a somewhat whimsical consideration of the Resurrection, with angels carefully lifting the tomb and Jesus’ ghostly spirit rising up and floating around, frightening away the centurions guarding His resting place. In the Ascension, Jesus rides a circular cloud into Heaven, where He sits next to God (a white-haired man with a flowing white beard) and begins to converse casually.

The direction of “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” is credited to Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet. There is no record of the actors in the cast – the performer in the role of Jesus appears to be a bit on the hefty side, a considerable difference from the more svelte actors that would play this role later on. Most of the film was shot on painted sets, with only a few exterior shots, notably the rocky tomb that held Lazarus.

As mentioned earlier, “La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” was presented in color via a system called Pathéchrome that used hand-coloring to bring bright hues to sections of the monochromatic imagery. This was done on a frame-by-frame basis on each print that was distributed, a time-consuming effort that ultimately paid off with a vibrant and often startling effect.

“La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ” was an extremely popular film on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was still enjoying theatrical playdates as late as 1932, well into the sound-film era. It was included in a 2012 DVD release by Image Entertainment that also included the 1912 American production “From the Manger to the Cross.” Today, the film is in the public domain and copies can be found all over YouTube.

Even if the film’s production seems a bit quaint by contemporary standards, it is still among the most impressive offerings of this cinematic genre. And if you are not interested in a film about Jesus, at least you can test your observatory skills in spotting the Pathé Frères rooster logo.

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.

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