Academy Award For Bigotry
By Mike Davis
10 March , 2004
The most evil film ever made was probably
Jud Suess, commissioned by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels
in 1940 to fan hatred of the Jews on the eve of the Final Solution.
A thousand years of European anti-Semitism were condensed in the image
of the cowering rapist Suess, with his dirty beard, hook nose, and whining
voice. The audience was instigated to rejoice in the lynching of this
subhuman monster at the film's end.
To anyone who has
ever seen Jud Suess (as I did in college), the most startling thing
about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- even more than its relentless,
shockingly eroticized cruelty -- is its fidelity to the anti-Semitic
conventions of Hitlerian cinema.
Indeed, the high
priest Caiaphas and his colleagues are such exact, blatant replicas
of Suess that I suspect they must be direct borrowings. Moreover, Passion
is one of the most manipulative films ever made and, after two hours
watching mobs howling in delight at Christ's suffering, it is no wonder
that many devout American viewers, like their German predecessors, have
left theaters muttering, "I hate the Jews."
The Romans, on the
other hand, are shown as noble imperialists. In contrast to the vile
Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate is depicted by Gibson as a sympathetic, even
saintly figure, tragically trapped between orders from Rome (no more
uprisings) and the implacable machinations of the high priests.
As in Suess, moreover,
there is a constant contrasting of somatic stereotypes. Mediterranean
types -- the two Mary's, Pilate and his wife, and so on -- are rendered
with softened features and sensitive spirits, while the Semites -- Caiaphas,
sybaritic King Herod, and so on -- are depicted as coarse and repulsively
sensual. (In a contemporary American context, such heavy-handed visual
anti-Semitism, of course, instantly summons up anti-Arab connotations
on using original languages -- Aramaic and Latin -- has impressed naive
viewers that Passion represents some new benchmark in historical accuracy.
In fact, history (the little actually recorded of these events, apart
from the posthumous theology of the gospels) is bizarrely inverted.
Jesus, of course,
is an utterly enigmatic figure. The only 'facts' in his life -- as attested
by both Roman and Jewish historians -- is that he existed and was executed
by the Romans. Pilate, on the other hand, has left a slightly larger
kindly fiction, the historical Pilate was an ordinary imperial procurator
in a third-class province who kept his legions busy with brutal executions
of Jewish and Samaritan rebels. Palestine, then as today, lived under
an iron heel, and the Passion's confusion of oppressor and oppressed
is morally obnoxious.
Some American critics,
however, have tried to defend The Passion by pointing out that Gibson's
real bête noire is the Vatican, not the Jews. Indeed Gibson explicitly
made the film to promote the religious vision of the rabid Catholic
traditionalist splinter group in which he grew up. (Passion's tormented
Jesus, Seattle actor James Caviezel, is also a fundamentalist Catholic,
claiming personal visitations from the Virgin.)
But the "tradition"
he so zealously defends is precisely the anti-Semitic Catholic fascism
of former Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and Pope Pius XII.
And, like Franco ideologues and their Croatian fascist counterparts
of that era, Gibson has the same morbid, vengeful obsession with pain,
mutilation, bodily corruption, and the ever-present temptation of Satan
(who constantly prowls the perimeter of his film).
In short, Passion
is the medieval vision of a pogromist, amplified by Hollywood special
effects and the cachet of celebrity. It is protected by a formidable
wall of enthusiastic endorsements from the American religious right
as well as by the tolerance of ordinary Gibson fans who just can't believe
that their goofy, handsome hero is really such a grotesque reactionary.
Mike Davis is author,
most recently, of the kids' adventure, Land of the Lost Mammoths (Perceval
Press, 2003) and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists
Never See (New Press, 2003).
2004 Mike Davis