Carl Theodor Dreyer first got the idea for a film about Jesus of Nazareth shortly after filming La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in 1927. The first written drafts are from 1930.
"The purpose of this film," Dreyer writes in the introduction to this early script, "must be to bring the image of Jesus out of the gloom of churches and into nature, in which Jesus himself liked to travel, and to show that Jesus did not float in the clouds but walked the earth as a man, in whom the creative ability that inhabits every human soul unfolded under forms such as have never been seen before or since in history."
As the above quote makes clear, Dreyer’s goal was not to bring the divine Christ to the silver screen. He had no wish to comment on that side of the issue and he would answer evasively when pressed to describe his personal relationship to Christianity. His attention was on the historical Jesus, and his efforts to encompass that figure represent the search of a zealous documentarist back to the actual events in Palestine two thousand years ago. Not that the historical realities were a goal in themselves. Realism in that sense is science, not art. But, Dreyer says, "to be able to abstract from reality, one has to know reality down to the smallest naturalistic detail," and there "has to be a correspondence between the realness of emotions and the realness of things." Historical realism first and foremost is a means for Dreyer to reach one of his stated goals, psychological realism.
The film’s other declared task was to "stamp out the myth that the Jewish people are to blame for Jesus’ death." In 1949, when Dreyer got a real chance to immerse himself in writing the script, the world had just emerged from a war that in a cataclysmic way had given new currency to this pro-Semitic aim.
First, Dreyer had to quash the perception that Jesus wasn’t Jewish. And it wasn’t enough that Jesus, naturally, had to be played by a Jew. Jesus also had to show that he was Jewish – in small gestures, for instance, and, not least, by stressing that there were no hostile undertones to the disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees. Dreyer is walking a fine line here. On the one hand, it’s essential to show Jesus as someone who stands alone across from a group of established religious worshippers and to clearly represent the differences of opinion. But the Pharisees are also Jesus’ own people, and the depiction of them must be so nuanced that we don't get an opportunity to condemn them.
Second, Dreyer had to switch around some of the events preceding the crucifixion, which in the Gospels have the effect that the Jews, led by the high priests, are portrayed as Christ’s killers. Here, too, Dreyer is well aided by several modern historians who by and large agree that Jesus died as a political victim of Roman occupation.
Dreyer’s Jesus definitely does not consider himself to be a political person. He is a charismatic and extraordinary man with unusual, but rationally explainable, abilities. He undergoes a psychological development that leads him to recognise that he is the Messiah, in the sense of being the Son of God. Even so, this family relationship should not be taken literally. As was the case with Jeanne d'Arc, it is exclusively of a spiritual nature.
Dreyer’s script was never realised – partly because of his unfortunate alliance with an American theatrical impresario, who in 1949 agreed to, but never did, solve the financial issues, and partly because the film industry only too late realised that an investment in Dreyer’s Jesus film – judging from the brilliant script – would have made posterity richer by one priceless artwork.
This is a revised excerpt from Lisbeth Nannestad Jørgensen’s article "Jesus på film – en balancegang mellem afmagt og overmod", published in Kosmorama, No. 187, Vol. 35, Spring 1989, a Dreyer theme issue celebrating the centenary of the director’s birth.
The article cites an article in Berlingske Tidende, from 19 Feb. 1956, and Carl Th. Dreyer’s book Om Filmen, 1959 edition, p. 70.
By Lisbeth Nannestad Jørgensen | 05. July