The Bootleg Files: I.N.R.I.

BOOTLEG FILES 695: “I.N.R.I.” (1923 silent German epic directed by Robert Wiene).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was considered lost for years.


Last week, this column considered a groundbreaking silent French attempt at creating a Biblical epic. This week, we take a look across the border to see the German approach to the sacred subject.

Unlike silent era filmmakers in France, Italy and the U.S., German filmmakers were not inspired to use their cameras to recreate the life of Jesus. An early entry in the genre from Germany was the 1921 production “Der Galiläer,” which film scholar Matt Page viewed as the one entry in Jesus-centric filmmaking of the silent years “that most unmistakably reflects the anti-Semitism that was rife in interwar Germany.” That film was directed by the Russian-born Dimitri Buchowetzki, who worked in Berlin, Hollywood and London but never managed to create a classic work.

Two years after “Der Galiläer,” a more prominent filmmaker took aim at the subject. Robert Wiene singlehandedly put Germany on the global cinema map with his 1920 masterpiece “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and he followed up that landmark production with features that mixed his Expressionist visual style and penchant for psychological horror, most notably “Genuine” (1920) and “Raskolnikow” (1923), an adaptation of “Crime and Punishment.”

In retrospect, Wiene might seem like the oddest choice as a director for a Biblical film, and his 1923 work “I.N.R.I.” offers a startlingly different approach to subject. Adapted from the 1905 novel by Peter Rosegger, “I.N.R.I.” is often more profane than sacred due to an emotionally frigid Expressionist presentation that is at odds with the spiritual and intellectual complexity of its holy inspiration.

Initially, Wiene planned to frame the ancient story with a modern device of an incarcerated anarchist facing the death penalty who is told the story of Jesus by a prison chaplain. However, this approach raised complaints from German censors and it was dropped prior to the film’s premiere.

Instead, “I.N.R.I” introduces the infant Jesus already laying in the manger and under the adoring gaze of both humans and angels – the latter observants line the roof of the manger and play musical instruments while a large paper Star of Bethlehem dangles besides them. Jesus is then shown as a youth in the synagogue, confounding the elders with his knowledge. Mary (played by Henny Porten, who was one of Germany’s most prominent film stars of the era) finds him and looks skyward in a mix of dread and love.

From there, we are in Jesus’ adult years. Pontius Pilate (Werner Krauss, Wiene’s Dr. Caligari) is weary and dreary who reacts to news of Jesus’ growing popularity with mild indifference. More disturbed by Jesus’ actions are the leaders of the Sanhedrin, who gather beneath an oversized anachronistic Star of David – that symbol was not present in the Bible-era, and it is not really needed because the stereotypical excesses in the appearance of the Sanhedrin leaders would have given audiences a too-easy clue for guessing their religion.

When Jesus finally shows up, he is moving in a stiff gait with his arms by his side and a blank stare accentuated by dark rings around his eyes. Gregori Chmara, who played the title role in Wiene’s “Raskolnikow,” was certainly the eeriest Jesus to appear on screen at the time, and he often comes across like the Judean ancestor of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” As Jesus gathers the children, the scene is unsettling as Chmara’s Jesus is a sterile entity that has no visible signs of connection with the youngsters being embraced..

Outside of Mary, the only recognizable figures surrounding Jesus are Mary Magdalene (Asta Nielsen, another major star of German silent cinema) and Judas (Alexander Granach). Mary Magdalene has little to do except wash Jesus’ feet and comfort Mary as Jesus’ final days come about, but Judas is increasingly irritated by Jesus’ behavior and succumbs to a pair of Sanhedrin chieftains who have been stalking him. When Judas betrays Jesus at the Last Supper, he inexplicably raises his arms in joy, as if celebrating some sort of scored goal.

Wiene set “I.N.R.I.” within highly stylized interior sets that don’t bear much resemblance to the popular concept of ancient Palestine. Indeed, the Garden of Gethsemane looks like an alien landscape with bizarre overgrown foliage. The cold avant-garde nature of the production design is mirrored by ensemble acting that is stiff and flat for too much of the footage, creating a monotonous presentation that numbs the viewer.

Ironically, it is only when Jesus has been condemned to death on the cross that the film comes to life. Chmara’s nearly lifeless Jesus suddenly channels the depths of unspeakable pain as his body is tortured by the Roman centurions. Chmara’s eyes, which barely registered any sign of emotion before, brilliantly mirror the suffering and anguish that the physically broken and crucified Jesus enduring. It is such a startling feat of acting that one has to wonder why Wiene waited so long before giving the actor the chance to unleash his talents. The film ends with the death of Chmara’s Jesus on the cross – the absence of the Resurrection is unusual for a Jesus-centric film of that era.

“I.N.R.I.” was well received in Europe when it was first released, but Americans would not get to see it until 1933 when it had a limited stateside release stateside as “Crown of Thorns” with a new synchronized music score. Today, it is difficult to appreciate “I.N.R.I.” because a complete and restored version is not readily available for public viewing. The complete film was considered lost for years, but in 1999 a copy was found in the silent film library Cineteca del Friuli in Italy. Another print was located in Tokyo in 2006. For most people, the only way to see the film today is via an incomplete version with Czech subtitles and an annoying time stamp can be found on YouTube.

Also on YouTube are a few minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of Wiene directing “I.N.R.I.” It offers an interesting glimpse into the massive studios where the sets for the Nativity and the Jerusalem street scenes were created.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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