Between God and Gibson: German Mystical and Romantic Sources of The Passion of the Christ
“The Passion held the No. 1 position at the box office for three weeks, then dipped when Dawn of the Dead knocked it out of first position. Now in its seventh week, The Passion beat out last weekend’s No. 1 movie, [the] comic-book action-adventure Hellboy, which dropped 52 percent to $11.1 million . . ” Anne Thompson, New York Times, April 11, 2004.
The German Romantics revolted against the Enlightenment by inventing a poeticized Christianity in literature and art and by incarnating their reinvented religion in a spiritualized poetry, love, and nature. Since their spiritualization of art effected its transformations in an autonomous poetic realm, their political impact was slight. For the same reason, even the deeply devout Romantic poets Novalis or Eichendorff composed a poetry that speaks to the secular-minded as much as to the religious. The essence of their work resides in a realm as separate from traditional religion as from science and politics.
But the legacy of German Romanticism also includes subliminally blended admixtures of religion with poetry and politics with religion-adulterations that subvert tradition in religion and simulate sacred authority in politics. Mel Gibson’s film of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus was attended by millions of spectators, many of them devout Christians, between Ash Wednesday and Easter, 2004. It would undoubtedly surprise many to know that Gibson’s film is rooted in the era that pioneered the poetic reinvention of religious authority. Without acknowledgement in the credits, The Passion of the Christ incorporates a tradition going back directly to nineteenth-century German Romanticism and indirectly to the mystical phenomena and writings they revived.
Gibson’s Passion is known to have borrowed a great deal from a book published under the name of a nineteenth-century German nun, Anna Katharina Emmerich (1774-1824): The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (DP). What is less widely known is that German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) was the author of the work attributed to her: Das bittere Leiden unsers Herrn Jesu Christ in its original title (Br 26). The true authorship of The Dolorous Passion was never a secret to scholars of German literature or to church historians. As Kenneth L. Woodward put it in Making Saints, the work resulted from “the conscious elaborations of an overwrought Romantic poet” (389).
Much of the debate over the film has therefore been based on erroneous premises. Early critical articles and reviews took Gibson to task for incorporating an objectionable passage, Matthew 27:25, the curse pronounced by the Jews on themselves in demanding the blood of Christ. The objection gave rise to the misleading impression that the critics were demanding that Gibson censor the Bible. The impression was further encouraged by the tenor of Christian support for the film. It seemed that the more critics of the film cited historical evidence contrary to the Bible or presumed to know the true message of Jesus better than the enthusiastic Christian audience, the less tenable their views became to those they needed to convince. The critics drew a line in the sand. Millions crossed it in the other direction. If the critics had begun by observing that the film is based on the “conscious elaborations of an overwrought Romantic poet,” the debate might have evolved differently. Without mentioning his source in the film credits, Gibson adapted a literary work that deviates from the Bible to the idiom of the violent action film.
The Film as Book
The reader is invited to imagine four intersecting circles across the page. The two middle circles are boldly outlined. They overlap broadly to signify the major content that the film borrows from the book: its continuous line of action, major episodes, secondary characters, dialogue, and many details. The outside circles that project their influences into the center signify on the left the concealed Romantic influence and on the right the visual impact of the Hollywood action film. From opposite extremes, the extraneous influences proceeding from German Romanticism and the Hollywood cinema thus meet and blend in the overlapping space of the film as book, giving rise to a cinematic verisimilitude that is spectacular and visionary but non-biblical in significant narrative and affective aspects. Without acknowledgment in his credits, Gibson extracted from the Romantic-era work an account of the Passion as combat against a formidable, personalized opponent, in a theater of battle polarized between friend and foe. Near the beginning of the film (just after the Last Supper), Jesus lies face down, praying in the night on the Mount of Olives. Beside him stands his opponent, Satan as tempter (in the film an androgynous temptress), who mutates into a serpent. When Jesus reconfirms his spiritual resolve, his physical ordeal begins. Next the opponent is the Jewish police who arrest him and beat him on the way to Jerusalem (DP 130ff.). Spectacularly, they throw him from a bridge. Then Jesus faces the physical abuse and mockery of the Jewish crowds and Sanhedrin. They behave as a raging lynch mob, far in excess of their Gospel prototypes (DP 152, 153, 154, 157, 159, 166, 187, 199, etc.). Similarly, Roman sadism exceeds any biblical precedent. The scourging of Jesus is attenuated and gruesome (DP 217-23). The torrent of blows and savagery continues relentlessly until Jesus expires on the cross. From the fluid mob-like opponent, a few thoughtful individuals emerge: Pilate and his wife Claudia, dissenting Jews, the good thief. The book lends the film its alternation of crowd scenes with one-on-one scenes, its colorful spectrum of individualized yet dichotomized good and evil characters, and its blow-by-blow choreography of violence. Gibson is in fact surprisingly faithful to the unacknowledged Emmerich-Brentano.
|Film scenes:||Gospel Precedent:||Emmerich-Brentano (DP):|
|1. Snake at Jesus’ feet .||None||“odious reptile” … “gigantic” (114)|
|2. Violent bridge scene .||None||Jesus struck, thrown from bridge (136)|
|3. Sanhedrin or Jewish crowd as “lynch mob”||One episode in each Gospel||Constant blows and abuse. Devils appear in Jewish crowds (see above.|
|4. Peter confesses to Mary||None||Corresponds exactly (174)|
|5. Underground prison||None||Jesus in a subterranean prison (176)|
|6. Herod as decadent||Herod only mentioned||Herod as “effeminate” prince (206)|
|7. Scourging of Jesus||No details are given||Extended characterization (202-3)|
|8. Pilate’s wife Claudia||Mentioned only once||Every detail corresponds (219-24)|
|9. Claudia’s many dreams||One dream mentioned||Claudia dreams like Emmerich (203)|
|10. Claudia brings cloth||None||Exact correspondence (224-5)|
|11. Nailing Jesus’ hand||No details given||Exact correspondence (270)|
|12. Raising up of cross||No details given||Exact correspondence (273)|
|13. Dialogue of high priest and the good thief||No details or no precedent||Close correspondence (280, 281)|
This merely outlines the relations of the Bible to Emmerich-Brentano and Gibson. In Emmerich-Brentano, the action was originally informed by numerous allusions lost to the film audience. Part of the content was the anti-Semitism of Romantic circles with which Brentano associated. But this was only one part. The tumultuous blood-thirsty crowd scenes have been interpreted as a reference to the French Revolutionary mob (Frühwald 182). Pilate and the Romans allude to the French or to the Protestant Prussian rulers of Emmerich’s Catholic Westphalia following the Congress of Vienna. Emmerich is the suffering Jesus, Brentano a disciple. The violence has its own tradition-bound semiotics. The Stations of the Cross, the seven falls of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, the seven words spoken on the cross, or the roles of Mary, Veronica, or other “good Jews” are drawn from Catholic tradition. Evangelical Protestants who have embraced the film are blissfully unaware that the flesh sundered from Jesus’ body when he is brutally beaten or scourged is a disparaging symbolic allusion to them as heretics ripped from the ecclesiastical body of Christ by the Reformation, an allusion explained early in The Dolorous Passion.
Bernhard Gajek has documented the materials on which Brentano drew. Among them was the Baroque devotional writing Das Leben Christi (Mainz 1677) of Martin von Cochem (Gajek 93ff.). Martin’s Baroque prototype contained many of the episodes and details Gibson extracted from Emmerich-Brentano, notably the detailed circumstances of Jesus’ capture, scourging, and crucifixion. Martin had cited such prior sources as Brigitte of Sweden and Catherine of Siena and had enveloped his recounting of the sacred events in an intrusive narrator’s monolog, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s prayerful Confessions or Soliloquies. Brentano shrewdly recast the Passion narrative, eliminating the Baroque middleman with his overt citations of traditional authorities and giving Emmerich the role of a transparent medium that witnesses historical events immediately and recounts them in her own words. When Gibson in turn eliminates from the film itself any mention or crediting of Emmerich, the resultant immediacy of presentation takes on an appearance of historical and biblical authenticity.
In composing Das bittere Leiden unsers Herrn Jesu Christi, Brentano consulted Hebrew calendars, travelers’ reports, and maps of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (Gajek 98). Even what the poet heard and wrote down from Emmerich herself was triggered and influenced by the questions he put to her or by sources such as Tauler that he read to her at her bedside (Schultz/SS 404). As a book collector-connoisseur and Romantic stylist-artist whose preserved manuscripts are replete with fine ink sketches of visionary scenes, Brentano also drew on medieval and Baroque iconography (Gajek 109-12). Akin to the Catholic Romantic “Nazarene” painters of the Lukasbund, the poet employed his literary skills to fashion finely wrought tableau-like scenes which the film exploits effectively.
When we see a Nazarene painting from the life of Christ or a Baroque painting of Jews persecuting Jesus, we know that we are looking at a Nazarene or Baroque painting. In the film, the historical determinants have been rendered imperceptible to the public. Since neither Emmerich nor Brentano is mentioned in the film credits, what remains of Gibson’s immediate source is what conforms to the scenario of the violent action film: action, violence, and good Christians against bad Jews and Romans. The defense might be made that the film adheres to the spirit rather than to the letter of the Bible. But what sort of spirit? Received via what kind of human agency? The fact that Brentano is the unacknowledged source of the film adds weight to the case against it. But it also greatly complicates matters.
Emmerich According to Brentano
This brings us to the character of the visionary nun, her devotee, his artistic life, and its relationship to the reported ordeals of Anna Katharina Emmerich. His notes of their conversations appear least embellished (Br 28,1). His anecdotal biography of her contains things that later Catholic commentators preferred to ignore. If Das bittere Leiden unsers Herrn Jesu Christi is known to be the work of the poet, Emmerich’s input is undeniable; and between his notes and biography of her on the one hand and the details of The Dolorous Passion on the other, there are many significant parallels and revealing resonances that are lost or subsumed in the film. In consequence, the Romantic influence subliminally but potently informs the film.
Emmerich has been referred to in various articles as an “anti-Semitic nun.” Though it is certainly possible that she held the prejudices of her time, the source cited for her anti-Semitism is from Schmöger, who published his biography of her forty years after her death and drew upon Brentano’s possibly unreliable protocols (Schmöger 547-8.). The evidence cited is in any case less substantial than Brentano’s own involvement in the anti-Semitic Deutsche Tischgesellschaft. It makes little sense to select atypically from Schmöger’s late nineteenth-century work while ignoring tendencies of its Romantic source. Brentano either conveys a less filtered view of Emmerich or he confronts us with seminal tendencies in the presentation of her life and significance. In fact, his account is more nuanced and compelling that those authored by more conventional biographers who depict her as the stereotypical saint. It can neither be ignored that Brentano spent several years at Emmerich’s bedside, and therefore had much first-hand knowledge, nor can it be ruled out that he would have had good reason to tailor his biographical account to match the visions he ascribed to her. Whether he was more accurate or simply more adept, his presentation is part of the historical context of the book and thus pertinent to the hidden sources of the film.
The degree to which the extant accounts of her life are derived from Brentano’s propaganda would be worthy of investigation. In the poet’s notes of their conversations, Anna Katherina does not come across as a hate-driven bigot. She is a cheerful peasant woman who from childhood possesses naive piety, imagination, and compassion. As a fourteen-year old, Anna had tried to assist her ailing parents by prayer and her peculiar device of surrogate suffering, that is, by taking upon herself the sufferings of others. In her later life, her instinctive pity and surrogate suffering intensified. Her pains became more acute and debilitating. The once vigorous and active peasant girl was eventually reduced to a bed-ridden invalid.
Joining an Augustinian convent fulfilled her life’s dream. But when her convent was secularized along with many others in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, she was deprived of her longed-for status. This led to a conflict of authority of a kind often associated with the beginnings of mystical experience. Her lost authority could only be restored by God himself. Beginning in medieval times, the challenged authority of women, lay persons, or clergy caught in double binds involving faith had given rise to the varieties of visionary, contemplative, and speculative mysticism. Her afflictions, visions, and ecstasies began to spread her fame on the winds of the Catholic Awakening movement that was gaining force at the time. From 1812 on, her afflictions are said to have included stigmata and other Christ-like wounds. Whatever these might have been – imagined, self-inflicted, or paranormal – it’s worth remembering that pain was hardly in short supply. In Brentano’s account, she pledged to suffer as a surrogate for the misery of her fellows. Her prayers were fulfilled.
This seemed an appropriate response to the discontents of her times. Compassion was in vogue in the second decade of the nineteenth century. Europeans, even of Anna’s peasant class, had fresh memories of revolution and of decades of war exacerbating the perennial misfortunes of the common people. The pious and uneducated Anna Katharina reacted naively to the crises of her time, its turmoil and confusions. As a child, she had dreamed dreams of the Reign of Terror, of Louis XVI at the guillotine, and of the chaos and bloodshed of battle. She had experienced dread at a place in the fields where an innocent soldier was said to have been betrayed by false witness and executed. From early childhood on, she had been gripped by scenes from the Bible. She sought to emulate Christ in her own afflictions.
In August 1819, Anna’s status as a mystical stigmatic was challenged by the state: she became the object of a public controversy when a Prussian government commission investigated her. Her newly arrived disciple became so zealous on her behalf that he antagonized even the cautious Catholic officials (Schultz/SS 402.). The commission’s painful and humiliating examination of Emmerich’s body appears as a likely prototype for Jesus’ envisioned humiliation. The Dolorous Passion mentions the violation of his modesty in a manner that suggests a refined or feminine sense of shame. Forced to strip publicly before he is whipped, Jesus loosens a remaining undergarment and quickly turns to face the pillar to conceal his private parts, calling out to the Virgin Mary to avert her gaze. In the German original, Mary swoons in this same instant-a psychologically suggestive passage that was deleted from the generally faithful translation. Emmerich’s humiliation by the investigating commission was also an extension of the political subjugation of Catholic Westphalia to a rationalist Protestant Prussian state. In a complex manner, Romantic sentiments and sensibilities as well as Catholic compassion were being made to suffer at the hands of an unsentimental Prussian order.
Compassion was a profound, intellectual, but also highly contradictory, impulse of the Zeitgeist. The years of Anna’s peak reputation produced Goya’s Disasters of War, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, the utopian schemes of Charles Fouriér and Robert Owen for alleviating popular misery, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, with its philosophical meditations on cosmic suffering and its exaltation of a compassionate sainthood. The example of Schopenhauer should serve to remind us that it is possible to write brilliantly about compassion without actually having any. The era of compassion was also a period of rising political repression and of a new anti-Semitism. There were anti-Semitic riots in many German cities in the year before Brentano met Emmerich. The cry of the rioters was “Hep, Hep!” an acronym for “Hierosolema est perdita,” “Jerusalem is lost.” According to Elon, this is a throwback to the medieval crusading ethos encouraged by Romantic nostalgia (Elon 101-7).
Brentano’s Path to Emmerich
In this dangerously contradictory, overheated climate, Emmerich’s fame spread to the Romantic intellectuals, many of whom had converted or were ideologically inclined to embrace Catholicism as a confirmation of their Romantic impulses. Her untutored faith and visionary gifts appealed to the Romantic elevation of imagination and interest in folk culture and to Brentano’s own quest for transcendent truth and absolute love. The poet believed that elements of a primal myth survived in folk tradition (Gajek 35). The visionary nun also nourished his fascination with occult or mystical knowledge. He would eventually use her to test his hypotheses about the power of the miraculous. He experimented with her ability to recognize true holy relics or gain clairvoyant knowledge of Jesus. After her death, Brentano even tried to prove the supernatural preservation of her corpse by having it exhumed (Schultz 192).
Possibly like Gibson himself, Brentano was beset by artistic and personal crises. He had renounced the literary life and returned to the Catholic faith. He was the brilliant, unstable, prodigal son of a wealthy Frankfurt merchant family with distinguished Italian roots. Orphaned young, he threw himself into intense, unconventional attachments. He hurled pleading love letters at Sophie Mereau, the married woman who became the first wife whom he adored but subordinated to his own ambitions (Dülmen 272). He was devastated by her death in 1806. A bizarre marriage followed in 1807 with Auguste Bußmann, a sixteen-year-old girl of good family who was already solidly betrothed to another before her tryst with the poet. The two were standing in a crowd of Frankfurt burghers attending Napoleon’s triumphant entry into the city. After making a scandalous public spectacle of their passions, the older man and the young girl eloped (Schultz/SS 169). The marriage was an instant disaster. Auguste was an untamed pupil of Romantic rebellion. He soon came to see his child bride as the demonic counterpart of the angelic mother figures he had always worshiped. With the support of friends, Brentano disposed of the demonized Auguste by means of a separation and divorce, an un-Catholic solution that he did not regret after returning to Catholicism, or indeed even after she committed suicide in 1832, in the wake of another tragic marriage (Schultz/SS 224-5).
Orphaned young, widowed early, burdened with guilt, Brentano was a prodigal son with nothing to return to. He invented a home, first in “the Invisible Church of Art” (Hoffmann 180) and afterward in a poeticized Catholicism. Van Dülmen recently called attention to the continuity of the Romantics’ cherished circles of friendship and their later conversions to a Catholic religious fellowship. This is nowhere more evident than with Brentano who found life unbearable without the intimacy of his sister Bettina, his friend and brother-in-law Achim von Arnim, or other associates whose hospitality for the wayward poet had begun to wear thin. In 1817 he wrote a massive confession of sins and returned to the fold. He also courted a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, the poet Luise Hensel. She was in love with another man, but likewise in the throes of a conversion to Catholicism, encouraged by Brentano. Partly to get him out of her hair, Luise urged the poet to visit Emmerich in the Westphalian town of Dülmen. He had been preceded there by others from his circle, including his brother Christian.
The poet went to Dülmen in 1819 and was so overwhelmed by his first encounter with the saintly invalid that he extended his stay for five years until her death in 1824. Luise also became a nun and continued to influence Brentano’s affairs for years to come. After Emmerich’s death, preserving her visions and the memory of her life became the central objective of Brentano’s remaining years. He published The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in 1833-nine years after Emmerich’s death-and worked on her biography. The Catholic expert who examined the Brentano-Emmerich papers in the 1920s didn’t think very highly of the poet’s religious development before or after his conversion. There was something unclean about his Romantic alchemy of sacred and profane love. Before converting, Brentano had raised poetry to a religion. After it his Catholicism was rank with poetic impulses. Before, he portrayed himself as crucified by the torments of unrequited love. Afterward the nun replaced the other female figures in his life as a mother-figure and soul-mate in one. Recent scholarship has even argued for an erotically charged relationship. Brentano is said to have encroached on Emmerich’s female privacy in tending her wounds. The invalid nun’s expressions of affection for her “Pilgrim” go beyond the erotic usages of traditional bridal mysticism and offer evidence of a relationship not confined to the spiritual (Schultz/SS 401-2).
Be this as it may, it seems clear that Brentano’s obsession with guilt and expiation and Anna’s extraordinary spirituality were decisive in drawing him to her bedside. The available literature suggests that, no less than Yeats or Dostoyevsky, he was above all an author, driven not by lust or anti-Semitism, but by his own creative demons. What they drove him to is of course another matter. In one respect at least, the Romantic poet was as modern as the present-day writers and artists who can’t simply experience their personal crises without publicizing them on talk shows and turning them into marketable commodities. Brentano made a major artistic production of his spiritual crisis, with God as a co-sponsor and the devil on hand to claim the critics and doubters. In this sense, we are dealing with a passion of the creative artist.
Both the book by Brentano and the film by Gibson succeed in attributing their production to a divine source: Emmerich’s divinely inspired visions or the Bible. For either, this involves something like ventriloquism or slight of hand; and the upshot, in both cases, is a validation, of Catholic Romanticism on the one hand and of the violent action film with a sacred content on the other. One might seek further parallels in the moral and religious development of Brentano and Gibson or the conservative political climate of their respective times; but this could unnecessarily complicate the issue. Not the concealed motive behind the deed but the work itself is the key to understanding their respective uses of substitution or ventriloquism. Gibson did not choose to return to Jesus by giving up his profane art and quietly operating a soup kitchen in obscurity. In making The Passion of the Christ, the director was working in the same métier as before. Not the profession was changed; the genre was instead elevated by its new content.
In the case of Brentano, the matter is similar yet more complex. The work he attributed to Emmerich both breaks with and validates his previous life as an artist. In collaboration with Achim von Arnim, the poet had formerly reworked and elevated folk material in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Scholars including Frühwald and Gajek have established that, like Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Das bittere Leiden incorporates and refashions materials drawn from various sources (Frühwald 294-7). With their peculiar artistic means, the Romantics supported the dictum vox populi, vox Dei. If Des Knaben Wunderhorn played secretary to vox populi, Das bittere Leiden does so for both populus and Deus. At the same time, the work necessarily relates to the lives and interactions of Emmerich and Brentano. Given the main premise that the nun’s sufferings imitate those of Jesus, it is only consistent that the participants in her lived drama correspond (though not one-to-one) with figures in the visionary work itself. They correspond to the degree that they embody either faith and compassion, or cruelty, indifference, and unbelief.
The following discussion should suggest how much of the informing power of the Romantic sources is lost and how much is either sublimated or transformed into the one-dimensional cinematic action film genre. In the film, the visionary scenarios from The Dolorous Passion are bolstered on the one hand by a presumption of biblical inerrancy and on the other by visionary cinematic technique. This leads to a serious disconnect. Despite their mystifications, Emmerich and Brentano did not go so far as to claim divine verbal inspiration. By omitting to mention his immediate source in the film credits, Gibson encourages the public to suppose that his screenplay is based on the Bible treated with a modicum of artistic license. Gibson thereby obfuscates the Romantic source of his film’s pathos and masks the human illness, compassion, historical experience, and imaginative inner life of Emmerich, as well as the poetic interventions of Brentano.
The Romanticism that is subsumed or supplanted in the film infuses the beginning of The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Its Last Supper is celebrated in a German Romantic ambience: “An der Südseite des Berges Sion, nicht weit von der nun auch verödeten Burg Davids und dem von der Morgenseite zu dieser Burg aufsteigenden Markte, liegt ein starkes, altes Gebäude zwischen Reihen oben zusammengezogener schattiger Bäume in einem geräumigen Hofe, der von dicken Mauern umgeben ist” (Br 26:71). “On the southern side of Mount Sion, not far from the ruined Castle of David, and the market held on the ascent leading to that Castle, there stood, towards the east, an ancient and solid building, between rows of thick trees, in the midst of a spacious court surrounded by thick walls” (DP 64-5). Moreover, David’s Castle, we are told, was where he and his chivalrous companions honed their martial skills: they are knights of yore, as imagined by a Romantic artist (DP 65). In another commentary, implausibly attributed by the supposed scribe to the untraveled Emmerich, the ruined Castle is described in the manner of a Romantic ruin. David’s Castle is reminiscent of the ruined monasteries painted by Caspar David Friedrich-or the heart-breaking secularization of Emmerich’s own Augustinian convent: “Wenn ich in den alten Zeiten Schlösser großer Könige und Tempel so herabgekommen sehe zu niedrigem Gebrauche, denke ich immer … wie jetzt, wo auch so viele große Werke frommer, treuer Mühsamkeit, Kirchen und Klöster zerstört, oder zu weltlichem, oft nicht allzu sündenreinem Gebrauche verschleudert werden” (Br 26:218). “When in meditation I behold the ruins of old castles and temples … my mind always reverts to the events of our own days, when so many of the beautiful edifices erected by our pious and zealous ancestors are either destroyed, defaced, or used for worldly, if not wicked purposes” (DP 192). Brentano’s Jerusalem obviously stirs the same emotions as Romantic Heidelberg, where a fellowship of poets and artists dreamed in the shadows of a ruined castle.
The Last Supper takes place in the house of Nicodemus. Like a German painter of the Lukasbund in Rome, Nicodemus dwells amid the ruined monuments of the past and occupies himself as a sculptor in his spare time. The Supper itself is eaten at three tables which seat twelve each in three adjoining rooms. This fanciful arrangement is suggestive of the interlocking circles of Romantic friends documented in Richard van Dülmen’s cultural history of Romanticism Poesie des Lebens. In its size, semi-public surroundings and male network, the Last Supper is not unlike the Christlich-Deutsche Tischgesellschaft of Brentano’s beloved friend and brother-in-law Achim von Arnim (Nienhaus 16).
Romantic art and Catholic faith merge in the ambience of visionary Jerusalem. Objects of utility in the Last Supper are depicted with a painterly attention to symbolic detail. There are scarcely veiled defenses of Catholic rites and sacraments, including the Real Presence in the Eucharist, which, it seems, Protestants no longer contemplate with sufficient solemnity. During the Last Supper, the Apostles are depicted as jotting down notes on the small parchment rolls they carry on their persons. Just as the notes the Apostles take are destined to become the Gospels, the notes Brentano took, or claimed to have taken, at Emmerich’s bedside are to become The Dolorous Passion. The visionary revelation at her bedside thus goes beyond claiming to mediate the biblical antecedent to mimic and embody it in an artistic equivalent of Real Presence in George Steiner’s sense. In all events, these symbolic and contemplative elements are lost in the transformation of book into film. It is only when the mode shifts to action and violence that the Romantic source is readily convertible into the modern cinematic medium.
The Book as Film
Beginning with Jesus’ sorrow and subsequent capture on the Mount of Olives, the film transforms the book into a Hollywood action film with its violence, physical feats, and polarization of good and evil characters. The setting as depicted in the book is still redolent of German Romantic sensibilities. True to the Romantic sense of nature, Jesus prays not in the cultivated stretches but in the wildest part of the Garden of Gethsemane, beneath a “nearly full moon.” Whereas in the book these details suggest a Romantic sensibility and a traditional Catholic symbolism (the moon as the Church), in the film they evoke the trappings of cinematic horror. The grotesquely androgynous hooded Satan appears vampire-like with a worm recoiling in her nostril. The cinematic snake is not crowned as in the book, a meaningful detail but a potentially absurd one in the film. Gibson’s horror-film ambience of night is intensified by the uncanny creatures that haunt Judas. In the book, they hover, less spooky, near Judas at the Supper (DP 79, 86).
As soon as Jesus is captured on the Mount of Olives, the lynch-mob-like action becomes dominant. Led off to Jerusalem, Jesus is made to run a gauntlet of blows on a bridge, a non-biblical scene from The Dolorous Passion. Spectacularly, he is thrown by his captors over the side of the bridge and caught to dangle on his ropes and chains in mid air. This acrobatic torment is not only drawn directly from the book; it also recollects an incident reported by Brentano of Emmerich’s childhood, one of her several encounters with the evil power. Crossing a bridge on her way to church, an evil passerby, apparently Satan in the form of a dog, struck her and threw her from the bridge (Br 28,1:261).
However, the book and film also introduce consoling scenes, wholly absent in the Gospels. The thrice repeated denial of Jesus by Peter figures prominently in the Gospels, where the space assigned to it in the terse narration is significantly large. A powerful episode within the Passion narration, its suggestive artistic potential received an eloquent testimony in Chekhov’s fine short story “The Student”: two peasant women weep bitterly as a seminarian evokes the failure of the faithful. However, in The Dolorous Passion, the Apostle Peter’s failure and betrayal of Jesus is overshadowed by crowd violence and then consolingly outshone by Peter’s interpolated confession of his betrayal to Mother Mary. The emphasis is shifted from the failure of the faithful to the viciousness of the faithless. Who could really blame this Peter? After capitulating before a vicious reign of terror, the Apostle confesses to Mary and promptly rounds a corner on his way to becoming a rock of the Church. This resembles the selective remorse of the poet, who was still defending himself near his own death from any possible heirs from the demonized Auguste (HS/SS 224-5), and was in any event less exercised by any personal guilt for her tragic death than by the blindness of those who did not embrace the Guarantor of his salvation. Like the Apostle Peter, the poet had found a mother figure to seek solace with in Emmerich. His prolonged penance at her bedside had put him well on his way to becoming a pillar of the resurgent Church -by doing what he had always done best.
Mary is not the only parallel of the compassionate nun. Another consoling female interpolation is the sensitive wife of Pontius Pilate, Claudia. Not without justification, the critics of the film have regarded her as symptomatic of an unhistorical vindication of the Romans at the expense of the Jews. However, the matter is more complicated. In book or film, Pilate’s wife Claudia watches Jesus being led through the street in bondage. In the book version, the wife of Roman power appears to be Anna Katharina’s sister in dream. For like the visionary nun, Claudia dreams extensively about Jesus’ life. Indeed, the visionary nun is said to have had visions of Claudia’s visions. Claudia is drawn by compassion to the spectacle of Jesus’ torment. In book and film, she brings or sends a bundle of cloth so that Jesus’ mother can wipe up the blood shed during his scourging. The detail is reminiscent of the ministrations required by the bleeding wounds suffered by Emmerich or imagined by Brentano.
In The Dolorous Passion, Pilate does not come off quite as well as in the film. He is presented in the book as cowardly, indecisive, opportunistic, and superstitious. Less so in the film, where he seems rather a man of good sense and good will, caught between a rock and a hard place. What the Catholic Guide to the Passion confirms of the film’s Pilate in the Ecce Homo scene can be extended to his larger role: “Here we see the vivid contrast between a man who still has a shred of compassion left in his heart set against a seething mob whose appetites for greater spectacle can’t be satiated” (43).
In Emmerich-Brentano, Matthew 27:25, the curse of Christ’s blood upon the Jews, elicits a vision of evil reverberating upon the accursed. Even if this is balanced elsewhere with expressions of compassion for Jews or Lutheran heretics, this is surely Brentano’s hand at its heaviest and at its worst. Here especially there is an echo of his involvements in anti-Semitic Romantic circles in Berlin. The above mentioned “Hep, Hep!” riots in numerous German cities in 1818 suggested to Amos Elon an intellectual influence at work, whether directly or indirectly (Elon 101ff.). In all events, Brentano’s stylized reflections on the curse are an inversion of the true historical situation. It seems as if by rioting against Christ the Jews were responsible for persecuting themselves.
The film’s horrendous scourging of Jesus is pure Emmerich-Brentano. It is an extended scene for which there is at most only the single laconic line in the Gospel of John: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” (19:1). In film or book, there is a non sequitur in this. If Pilate’s purpose is to let Jesus off easy, why should he have had him flayed to a bloody pulp? The extreme scourging that makes little sense in the film, and therefore comes across as a sadomasochistic spectacle, again conforms to what Brentano conveys of Emmerich’s ascribing of divine meaning to her painful ailments as suffering on behalf of others. In film and book, Jesus is taken at Pilate’s behest to a public place where he is chained to a post, a tall one in the visions and a waist-high one in the film. In either case, brutal and degenerate sadists begin by working Jesus over thoroughly with rods. Then they go on to use whips that look like cat-o’-nine tails, with “hooks.” These serve to rip strips of flesh from Jesus’ back. In the book, it is made clear that the tearing off of Jesus’ flesh is symbolic of a Protestant Reformation that sundered “flesh” from the ecclesiastical body of Christ. The scourged Jesus is flayed in back and then turned to be flayed just as brutally in front. In film or book, blood splatters the arms of his sadistic tormentors.
In a small but technically significant detail, the film differs here from its source: Because Gibson’s whipping post is waist-high Jesus can be whipped until prostrate. He then rises to his feet, causing his tormentors to utter in amazement: “Reddere non potest.” It isn’t possible to come back after that sort of punishment. The movie-going public may well be less likely to take this as a foreshadowing of the triumph of spirit over flesh in the Resurrection, than to recognize it from, say, The Last Samurai: Tom Cruise, as a captive of samurai warriors, takes a fierce beating only to get back up and fight his opponent to a stand-still. Whether in The Last Samurai or in The Passion of the Christ, the hero who is beaten to a pulp before making a redemptive comeback is a Hollywood stock-in-trade.
Emmerich-Brentano and Gibson can be gruesomely impressive in capturing the physical details of torment. It is at least conceivable that, as a hard-working peasant girl, Anna could imagine in craft-like terms the task of nailing a man’s hands to a crossbeam. Preparing to nail Jesus’ hands, the soldiers in Emmerich-Brentano bore holes so the nails won’t bend or break in the hardwood beam. When they notice they have miscalculated Jesus’ arm length, a rope is tied to his wrist to wrench his arm so that his second hand is in place to receive the nail. Equally grim and craftsman-like is the manner in which the cross to which Jesus has been nailed is hoisted up till its base is inserted into a reinforced hole, causing his suspended body to receive a final tormenting jolt. The procedure is found in outline in Martin von Cochem, but if we can assume that the invalid Emmerich really suffered as the reports of her condition indicate, then the gruesome precision might also betoken a contemplation of the meaning of her pain. If this connection is implicit in the book, it is missing in the film. The viewers are given no clue of the framing account of the visionary nun, which might have lent the perspective of the film an honest distance from what it portrayed. Instead, harsh cinematic immediacy pretends to be authoritative. By ratcheting up the descriptions with special effects, The Passion of the Christ surpasses the evocations of torment in The Dolorous Passion. There was no dearth of blood in Emmerich-Brentano, yet the film’s extravagant effects of dripping, splattering, running, and pooling blood owe more to a tradition that goes back to the Sam Peckinpah blood-bath Western.
Stripped of their figurative symbolism, the details of violence merge with the cinematic verisimilitude that passes itself off as scriptural-historical veracity, a slight of hand that works. It all looks so real, therefore it must be true. Despite its pretense of biblical fidelity, The Passion of the Christ confers legitimacy on a media violence that numbs thought and compassion. The potential to foment anti-Semitism or other forms of group hatred may derive more from the action-film scenario of good and evil characters than from any biblical passage. The word as thought is subsumed and degraded by the spectacle. The Passion of the Christ reflects an American fear of and fascination with pain. Christ’s transcendence is conceived as an exponential leap off the10-point pain scale displayed in hospital wards. Ocean-bound islanders who convert to Christianity may well be gratified to witness Bible stories performed in their native idiom and style. Gibson has done as much for the insular tribe of media-bound American Christians: the idiom of the tribe is action, horror, and cruelty. Already a master of righteous violence, Gibson in his starring role as The Patriot inflicted a similar desecration on the heritage of the American Revolution. Equipped with his expertise and armed with the secret weapon of Brentano’s Romantic-era forgery, he has successfully engineered the transformation of sublime mystery into formulistic trash.
More could be said about the atavistic status of both Gibson and Brentano in the traditions they draw upon and revive. Brentano’s relationship to Emmerich re-enacts the medieval monastic constellation in which male scribes served as amanuenses to visionary or ecstatic nuns (Gajek 42-3). There are significant atavisms that link the medieval to the cinematic. In his Film vor dem Film, Jörg Jochen Berns argued that the mental processes of cinematic viewing and imagining were anticipated at the end of the Middle Ages by the pictorial mechanisms invented for the contemplation of the Passion. Gibson’s film draws on deep and tangled roots that are mystical and medieval as well as Romantic.
However, any satisfaction we as scholars might derive from demonstrating that the new is after all rooted in the old should not divert us from the unfolding character of the new. It would be inadequate to say that Christianity is entering the sphere of public entertainment. If The Passion-vying for its box-office victories between Hellboy and Dawn of the Dead-is a sign of the times, Christianity is instead turning itself over to the entertainment profiteers to be retooled on their terms. Gibson and his film have aroused the acclaim once accorded to revivalists, reformers, or saints. Any Christian misgivings about the mindless violence of the genre as practiced by the director were drowned out. When ancient Roman Christians sought to abolish the bloody Roman games, they did so as much to save the souls of the spectators as to spare the flesh of the gladiators and their prey. In the twenty-first-century equivalent, the Christian enterprise appears content to affix its logos to the arena and insinuate its insipid prayers into the ritual of saluting the emperor as a sanctimonious prelude to the fun of watching the killing. With private altars in every household, the Cineplex has shown that it can rival the churches as the place to experience what passes for sacred mystery.
We need to consider what sort of future is foreshadowed by a blockbuster film as mendacious and lucrative as The Passion of the Christ. We live in an era in which the realms of faith and fact, of values and realities, appearance and truth, are confounded by the very institutions formerly devoted to the preservation of their separate integrity. The once distinct realms are becoming dangerously distorted in the process. The infomercial, fictionalized journalism, or the cinematic special effect, as well as political hypocrisy and dissimulation on an unprecedented scale-all these reflect the same trend. As a result, the Romantic program of a poeticized reality in which artistic myths bind society together is acquiring an ironic applicability. To transform society, the Romantic poet Brentano planned to create a “Christian world epic” with roots in folk culture. This program which was quixotic then is attainable now. With its capacity to create and disseminate popular cultures, an entertainment industry guided by nothing but profit may well succeed where the Romantic intellectuals failed. From a collective imagination rooted in the past, the industry requires only one thing: a supply of compelling narrative material. Marketable myths must be constantly invented, discovered, or revitalized, since those in production rapidly lose their utility. Earlier art, music, or literature could reinterpret the Passion over and over again without vitiation. But at least for now the Passion has been “done” and the question is: what can we expect next?
No tendency is more alarming among Christians, Muslims, or Jews today than the trend toward a conflict-prone messianic or apocalyptic mind-set. The end-time outlook conforms to and encourages the general tendency to embrace a violent, dualistic world-view, a tendency retailed in the media and favored by our political leadership. When it comes to tapping into and profiting from this powerful source material, the violent action film is more intimately familiar to the public at large than the cosmic plan of destruction laid out in the Book of Revelation. But what could be better than a biblical ingredient for enhancing and dignifying the material? Films as influential as The Passion are capable of creating and shaping a popular eschatological consciousness-not based on scriptural or theological considerations but grounded in popular myths. A public trained by thousands of viewing hours knows what comes next when familiar motives flash before it. The holy victimization suffered by Gibson’s Christ cries out for its sequel: the return of a kick-ass Warrior Messiah, the avenging superhero familiar as Schwarzenegger, as Gibson in The Patriot and Braveheart or Russell Crowe in The Gladiator.
The recyclers of a centuries-old pious fraud are already advancing into this next, dangerous phase with the politicized Christian apocalyptic of the Left Behind novel series of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Their concluding sequel, Glorious Appearing, came out hard on the heels of The Passion, delivering the requisite vision of divine vengeance: “Men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.” Here is a degradation of the word by its self-anointed prophets that ought to stir religious and secular scholars alike to act in its defense. If we, as academic scholars of sacred or secular literature, fail to address this degradation in our research or teaching, we are like physicians who are faced with an epidemic but remain cloistered in their labs and offices – preoccupied, as we like to say, with our own work.
Andrew Weeks, Illinois State University (May 25, 2004/ revised Nov. 1, 2004)
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The Bible (New Revised Version). The Gospels According to Matthew (ch. 26-27); Mark (ch. 14-15), Luke (ch. 22-23), and John (ch. 18-19).
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—–. Das bittere Leiden unsers Herrn Jesu Christi. Lesarten und Erläuterungen. (Gajek) Ed. Bernard Gajek. In Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 27,2. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1995.
—–. Anna Katharina Emmerick-Biographie (Br 28,1), ed. Jürg Mathes. In Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, 28,1. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1982.
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Thompson, Anne. “Holy Week Pilgrims Flock to ‘Passion.’” New York Times 11 Apr. 2004. B1+
Weeks, Andrew. German Mysticism from Hildegard of Bingen to Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Literary and Intellectual History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Wills, Garry. “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners. The Passion of the Christ, a film directed by Mel Gibson; Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner.” New York Review of Books. 8 Apr., 2004.
Woodward, Kenneth L. Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.