Ib Fyrsting & Carl Nielsen – Jeg så Jesus dø AKA I Saw Jesus Die (1975)
How do you create a movie based on the Christian bible in the second half of the 20th century without staging a kitschy spectacle? How do you avoid the usual parade of dead symbols and void gestures that do no longer cause the viewer to reflect upon anything else than which artistic effects are used to show the symbols and gestures? And how do you cram the Christian bible into a 1h 30min movie without resorting to filming hand-picked episodes that fit your own petty human(ist) ideas about an ideal Jesus?
‘I Saw Jesus Die’ tries to overcome the above-mentioned obstacles by blemishing the biblical narrative. ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ deliberately toys with our expectation of what a biblical story should be. For example, seemingly unimportant stories are included in the movie while the single-most important part of the bible, the Resurrection of Jesus, is left out. Other biblical stories are deformed and turned into biblical non-stories. Monstrous stories, that have nothing to do with Christian tradition, have also been inserted into the movie. The movie does therefore not try to enlarge our understanding of Christianity by simply presenting masquerades of well-known stories. No, in order to watch this movie we have to reject pretty much all prior knowledge of Christianity. Thus the movie helps us negate all prior knowledge such that we can transcend the knowledge of the mind by not knowing anything.
At times parts of biblical verses are left out by the voice recounting the travails of Jesus. This totally destroys whatever sort of discursive meaning that were part of the original bible verse. By deforming biblical language itself and rendering it discursively meaningless the movie obviously tries to make the viewer transcend the limitations of purely cataphatic readings of the Bible and help the viewer reach a higher inexpressible understanding of what is beyond all knowledge and being. That is, the movie makes us realise that all our language (even the bible) is confined to the ideas we are capable of forming.
The movie transcends the usual gospel accounts of how Jesus gathered the apostles in a brilliant way. The divine monad starts out by converting two fishermen (presumably Simon and Andrew, if we “think” the movie follows an account from the bible). The divine monad and the imperfect dyad (who will later go on to found the eastern and western church) then double their numbers by converting a triad of bystanders. Since three is the first real number it is clear that the divine one has now truly attained a human nature by becoming part of the real. The divine one thus doubles twice, first in order to first create the church, and then secondly to move the church into the real world. This move into the real is underlined by a miracle. Jesus is able to speak and convert the triad of bystanders without the use of words. Jesus simply opens his mouth and looks like he is talking without ever uttering a single sound. This monstrous act clearly shows us the workings of the holy spirit working through the Christian churches. What at first glance seems to be a scene of how Jesus gathers his disciples is cleverly turned into an illustration of the Holy Trinity. Thus the movie presents us with a meaningful un-biblical story instead the biblical story we were expecting. This makes us realise that both stories are actually man-made and told by man, and that we can never truly understand God.
In ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ Jesus is not depicted in the streamlined and standardised way which characterises most contemporary illustrations of the life of Jesus – that is, Jesus modelled as some sort of late 20th century western academic (egalitarian, non-judgemental, a humanist, etc). Instead Jesus is depicted much more as he comes across in Christian scripture. He is very Jewish, incoherent, misogynistic, he teaches using bizarre parables, he runs a dubious healing business, he interprets the Torah and insists on imposing his Torah interpretations on other people, and he gathers a following of low-lives and other outcasts of questionable loyalty.
The Passion of Christ episode have been created with truly wonderful ingenuity. When Jesus is hanging on the cross he only blames an unidentified group (“they”) for his crucifixion as he cries out in agony. The movie thus cleverly avoids the political ‘who killed Jesus’-powder-keg and thus depoliticises the episode. An episode in the life of Jesus which very few other people have been able to present in a spiritually meaningful way in the 20th century. In totally depoliticising the Passion of Christ, ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ makes a radical break with the by now long-standing tradition of solely seeing Christianity as a pretext to discuss various current political polemics. By refusing to blame the Jews, Romans, humanity,… for the death of Jesus ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ demands the viewer to forget such political squabble and instead immense himself/herself into to the purely spiritual dimension of the episode. A masterstroke of ingenuity which makes ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ stand apart from most other adaptations of biblical stories.
The anointing of Jesus. The artist of this image has managed to capture the disciples’ feeling of uproar and disgust in a beautifully skilled manner. Only four disciples are painted, but by letting each of the four have such extreme expressionistic postures and facial expressions, the group of disciples seem complete and the accumulated amount of feeling makes the group seem much larger. It is the mark of a true master to be able to express such a spectacle of emotion with such simple means.
One of the most striking ways ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ breaks with the tradition of Jesus-films is in its use of sound. ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ totally rejects the use of “natural” sound. In ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ speech is not automatically connected to the act of talking. Plenty of characters talk without making a sound. This obviously leads us to think, that whenever we actually hear something being said, what we hear is not the “natural” cause of the speech but rather the Cause of all speech. But at the same time this grotesque and divine speech only presents us with a bunch of old biblical quotes and various profane vulgarities in totally dead dictions. This contradiction between “divine” and the hackneyed speech accentuates a feeling that it is utterly useless to believe that one can express the divine using any sort of language. So ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ tells us not to contemplate what is ultimately unknowable, but rather how to reach it.
Not only does ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ mock the use of reason to understand God, the movie also mocks the use of pompous art as a means to reach God. Instead of using the soundtrack to emphasise the greatness of God as some sort of human world ruler, the movie cleverly toys with our expectations and present us with strange monophonic versions of some most well-known works of the titans of Western classical music (most prominently Mussorgsky). In a similar vein the movie has all characters describe their most pleasurable experiences as “skønt!” [wonderful!]. This constant use of “wonderful” does not lead us to believe, that the various experiences are really “wonderful” and things we should aspire to. Instead we are force-fed a long cascade of “wonderful” banalities ad nauseam.
A plump Jesus tempted by a voluptuous devil. Jesus is depicted as well-fed and in no need of more material possessions, so the scantily clad devil is obviously not able to lure this chubby Jesus into turning stones to bread. This devil must obviously be tempting the fleshy Jesus by non-material earthly delights. The artist of this image has depicted the devil’s offer as void by showing us the open and empty hand of the devil. Jesus is shown stoutly rejecting the offer and determinately fixing his gaze at the heavens instead.
In ‘I Saw Jesus Die’ Satan tempts Jesus with her cunt. Jesus rejects Satan’s offer as we would expect and denies his sexuality. But during most of the rest of the movie Jesus seems to be obsessed with human sexuality. The wellspring of Jesus’ human life was the cunt of Maria, so Jesus have obviously also had some contact with the human sex. This movie is thus not just a simple rejection of the material world in favour of a life devoted to the mind. Jesus is a sexual being and Jesus is not a sexual being. God is divine and God is not divine. God is the Truth and God is not the Truth.
Subtitles:English – srt