Academic journal article German Quarterly

Between God and Gibson: German Mystical and Romantic Sources of The Passion of the Christ

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Between God and Gibson: German Mystical and Romantic Sources of The Passion of the Christ

Article excerpt

For Suzanne Stahl

Mel Gibson's film of the last twelve hours in the life of Jesus was the visible crest of a sea change. Viewed by record audiences between Ash Wednesday and Easter, 2004; screened a year later by numerous Christian churches and groups, as if a new Easter rite had been instituted; declared emblematic for the Red States in the 2004 presidential race: The Passion of the Christ marks the receding tide of liberal secular society and the rising tide of a new conservative religiosity. But rising tides can also conceal invisible currents. Those whose information about the film came from its credits-virtually all who saw it in the decisive period of its reception-were not informed that Gibson's representation of the Passion drew heavily on a tradition that extends to 19th-century German Romanticism and the earlier mystical and visionary sources revived by the Romantics.

Gibson's Passion is known to have borrowed a great deal from the translation of a book published under the name of a 19th-century German nun,1 Anna Katharina Emmerich (1774-1824): The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (DP), Das bittere Leiden unsers Herrn Jesu Christi in its original title (Br 26). Much less widely known is the fact that German Romantic poet Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) was the author of the writing attributed to her. Germanists and church historians have long been aware that Das bittere Leiden resulted from what Kenneth L. Woodward characterized mMaking Saints as "the conscious elaborations of an overwrought Romantic poet" (389).

In a society increasingly preoccupied with safeguarding intellectual property, Gibson's use of Emmerich-Brentano is anomalous. If one who benefits knowingly but tacitly from false attribution is all the more culpable for having been reticent, a filmmaker who acknowledges his source in an interview but fails to credit it in releasing his film to its mass audience can be said to have knowingly reaped the benefits of plagiarism. The benefits drew compound interest. Borrowing heavily on what amounts to a Romantic forgery, Gibson's reticence about his source enhanced the aura of his production by encouraging an unsuspecting public to form an exaggerated notion of the biblical authenticity of The Passion of the Christ.

Much of the debate over the film has been based on false premises. Early critical reactions took Gibson to task for incorporating an offending scriptural passage, Matthew 27:25, a curse pronounced by the Jews on themselves in demanding the blood of Christ. This created the misleading impression that the critics were censoring the Bible. Even if the alleged anti-Semitism of the film draws upon the New Testament and on traditional Catholic representations of the Passion, the discussion might have been more to the point if only the public had known that the film was based on "the conscious elaborations of an overwrought Romantic poet. " Gibson adapted a literary work that deviates from and embroiders the Bible to the idiom of the violent action film.

For the sake of disclosure, I should acknowledge my personal response to the film. Before seeing it, I sympathized with Gibson's artistic and religious prerogatives. Though a secularist, I regarded his Christian and Jewish critics as a self-appointed censorship board. But rejection is not censorship. Viewed on its own merits, The Passion of the Christ struck me as sanctimonious exploitation, dishonest to the core. With its Latin and Aramaic dialog, the film cultivates a deceptive appearance of biblical authenticity. It capitalizes on much that is questionable in Christian Passion veneration, as well as on arguably anti-Semitic elements in the New Testament. Still, the biblical or traditional sources are less troublesome than their absorption in the public sphere. The Passion of the Christ is problematic because it refashions the sacred in the image of a profane medium. Its unlabeled mix of ingredients hastens the erosion of a public secularism that serves, among other purposes, to protect the religious themselves. …

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