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An Academy Award For Bigotry

By Mike Davis

10 March , 2004 by

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 as well.)

Gibson's insistence 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 record.

Unlike Gibson's 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).

Copyright © 2004 Mike Davis