Socialist Worker

Bigotry gets a makeover

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ brings Hollywood effects to medieval anti-Semitism

Issue No. 1896

THE MOST evil film ever made was probably Jud Suess, commissioned by 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 eroticised 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, The Passion is one of the most manipulative films ever made. After two hours of watching mobs howling in delight at Christ's suffering, it is no wonder that many devout American viewers, like their German predecessors, have left theatres muttering, 'I hate the Jews.'

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 physical stereotypes. Mediterranean types-the two Marys, Pilate and his wife, and so on-are rendered with softened features and sensitive spirits.

Meanwhile the Semites-Caiaphas, high-living king Herod, and so on-are depicted as coarse and repulsively sensual. In a contemporary US context, such heavy-handed visual anti-Semitism, of course, instantly recruits anti-Arab connotations as well.

Gibson's insistence on original languages-Aramaic and Latin-has impressed naive viewers that The Passion represents some new benchmark in historical accuracy. In fact, history (the little actually recorded of these events, apart from 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 US critics, however, have tried to defend The Passion by pointing out that Gibson's real hate figure is the Vatican, not the Jews. Indeed Gibson made the film to promote the religious vision of the rabid Catholic traditionalist splinter group in which he grew up.

The 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 General Franco and Pope Pius XII.

And, like Franco ideologues and their Croatian fascist counterparts, 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, The Passion is the medieval vision of a pogromist, amplified by Hollywood special effects and the prestige of celebrity. It is protected by a formidable wall of enthusiastic endorsements from the US 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.


How did Christopher die?

Rough Justice: Death on Camera Wednesday 14 April, 9pm, BBC1

CHRISTOPHER ALDER was a 37 year old black man. On 1 April 1998 Christopher was arrested. He was dragged unconscious into a Hull police station. After just 11 minutes he died, sprawling on the custody suite floor with his hands manacled behind his back and his trousers and underpants pulled down round his ankles.

The police who were guarding him were caught on video laughing and joking while he lost his desperate battle for breath. Now a major new documentary is set to tell Christopher's story. The programme has been made by the same team who made The Secret Policeman. This programme blew the lid off racism in the police force by secretly filming officers.

Rough Justice sets out to look at the Alder family's fight for justice. This could be an explosive programme.

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Sat 10 Apr 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1896
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