CHRIST THE REDEEMER
The retailers have finally succeeded in impressing on me that Christmas is coming. And, having seen the light (or lights), I decided that this instalment of T.C.O.B. would feature Jesus Christ.
Firstly, a word about T.C.O.B. instalments: this will be the last of the current series. My thanks to all who taken the time to read these seventeen essays on film appreciation and related pleasures. Hopefully you have gained from it. You can stay in touch by following T.C.O.B. on twitter @TCOB_capetown and on facebook at @TCOBcapetown.
I return to Jesus Christ, or rather to the portrayal of the man in a film which I have seen more than three times and can therefore recommend in good conscience. Theology is not used in T.C.O.B.’s catechism. But I believe that art, when it is good, is deeply spiritual. This, in my opinion, justifies an attempt to understand Christ and his word by means of an actor’s interpretation in a film.
The original title of the film I propose we examine is Jesus Christus Erlöser – Christ the Redeemer. It was shot in 1971 in Berlin under the direction of Peter Geyer and stars the notorious Klaus Kinski. It is very easy to find, either in the original German or with subtitles. A word of warning, however: it is not about Jesus Christ Superstar. The Christ which Kinski portrays is “not the official Church-Jesus, tolerated by bankers, generals, politicians and other representatives of power, only to be slapped across the face as soon as he stops playing his ascribed role.” This Jesus rejects dogma and ideology. He does not have a racial identity. He does not belong to any party – not even the Christian party.
Kinski is detested, if not more than, then at least as much as he is adulated. With his unorthodox interpretation of the Christ he was always going to arouse indignation. Furthermore, he does not disguise himself for the role. He appears in a floral/polka-dot shirt, wide-bottom jeans and shoes with big heels – as one does in 1971 – and speaks in modern or at least non-biblical vernacular. “The police are looking for me,” he announces. The lack of distinction between the mortal – perhaps disgustingly so – actor and the holy figure of Christ may also offend many. Nonetheless, the spirit of redemption is discernible in his words: “the police are looking for me because I cry out that the existing order will fall…”
Discernment is not easy in the humdrum of life. You need to listen carefully. But Kinski’s speech is soon marred by jeering and whistling. After a few minutes he is forced to interrupt himself. He shouts to the hecklers to “shut their gobs.” A pharisee comes up to him and declares for the benefit of those present, “This is not the Christ. Jesus, as far as I know, was tolerant. Had someone contradicted him, he would have tried to win him over with dialogue, not told him to shut his gob.” – “No!” roars Kinski in reply. “He didn’t tell him to shut his gob. He took a whip and smacked his gob! That’s what he did, you stupid pig! And that just might happen to you too!”
To put it in context, it is worth going back to the beginning of the film. People are filing into the Deutschlandhalle, a now demolished theatre in Berlin. They move in and out of shadows. Lights form halos around the heads of the ushers… the suggestion is not that you are beholding the gates of heaven complete with a welcoming party of saints, though who among the living can say for certain what the entrance to heaven looks like? But the scene does arouse the feeling that you are about to participate in something removed from the material concerns of life.
Indeed, you do not have long to wait before Kinski tells of a soldier who wanted to follow Jesus. “What must I do?” he asked. Jesus told him, “Cast off your uniform and follow me.” Another man, tells Kinski, said to Jesus he wanted to follow him wherever he went. Jesus said to him, “Then give all you have to those who have nothing, and follow me.” The Pope himself, tells Kinski, came up to Jesus and beseeched him to reveal what he had to do so that he might follow him in eternity. “Shut your gob,” replied Jesus, “and follow me.”
That is how “the fall of the existing order” ought to be understood. The word of Kinski’s Redeemer is, do not set great store by material things. As impressive, reasonable and necessary as they appear to be, they are transient. Seek, rather, and believe in the eternal. Then you will live without fear of death, which is to say, you will be living people. Of course, it is a hard act to follow. Who would be defenceless? Who would be impoverished? Who would be silent who is so righteous? But ultimately the question is, will you hear the word and try to live by it, or will you reject it and crucify the bringer? When Kinski poses the dilemma the prevailing mood is for the latter. He is jeered and heckled. Finally, the stage is invaded.
But wait a moment, you say… What is being discussed here: a film or a stage performance? I confess, I was unclear on this point. Christ the Redeemer is a filmed stage performance. Though I don’t see why we shouldn’t agree to call it simply a film. There’s a sequence of moving pictures captured by various cameras that lasts about eighty minutes. There’s a story – quite possibly an interesting one, to judge by the fact that it’s survived over two millennia – and a legendary actor in the lead role. There’s a drama arising from the efforts of a largely hostile audience to stop the lead actor from fulfilling his role. There’s film editing, light and sound production to enhance the drama. What more does one need to have a film? A hundred million dollar budget and special effects up the arse? Personally, a trillion dollar budget and whatever special effect comes with it won’t do it for me as long as the film is not good. I might not be a redeemer, but I know that the world will be a better place when the aesthetic of the blockbuster is finally inserted back into whatever arse it issued from.
The most wonderful quality of Christ the Redeemer is the realism with which it portrays Jesus’ passion to bring his word to humanity. It is achieved in large part because it happens by accident. Kinski was supposed to have come on stage and delivered a monologue. The audience was supposed to have sat and listened. Instead, as with Christ over two thousand years ago, the audience does not want to hear and the word is obscured by cries of scorn. But the bringer’s passion will not die. He wants to bring his word to humanity regardless. He is forced to leave the stage but he returns. He is forced to leave again. He returns again. When he returns for the fourth time there are only about a hundred people left in the theatre. But he will speak to them. His body is tired. His voice has weakened considerably. But he will speak. He will say what he came to say.
The film’s ending is a deeply moving parallel with Jesus Christ’s lingering death on the cross. The actor playing him has strutted and fretted not one but several hours, and yet he continues to speak.
“My God, do not forsake me. Give me the strength to die. Give my death a meaning. Make them understand at last why I am dying. Make them understand why I have been dead for two thousand years and yet continue to die…”
For humanity is still unwilling to hear Christ’s word. And so we continue to crucify him every year.
But such is Christ’s passion that ultimately he knows there is a meaning to his short life and unjust death. Such is his love for humankind that he knows one day we shall all hear and understand. And here the film ends. The actor takes his bow and the shot moves off him, upwards into light.
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