A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

WeWriWa—A liberator’s gift

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from Chapter 20, “Remnants Rescued,” of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, set during April 1945.

Kálmán and Móric are the only two boys left of the group that set out from Jawischowitz in January. Apart from two who escaped and another who was left behind at Mauthausen, everyone else has perished. The end of the road was Buchenwald, whose strong resistance immediately put them into a boys’ brick-laying detail. Their two remaining older friends insisted on working in the quarry with the other men, and weren’t as lucky.

The sickly Móric was hidden in the typhus ward by their Communist Kapo, and Kálmán insisted on joining him. Shortly afterwards, the camp resistance sent messages to the U.S. Third Army, killed their remaining guards, and liberated themselves. Now the soldiers have arrived, and Kálmán begs them to help Móric.

“We’ll bring doctors and nurses here as soon as we can, and give you whatever food we have,” a freckled soldier said in German. “You boys will be very well taken care of.”

“We’re not boys, we’re men,” Móric said softly.

The freckled soldier smiled at him. “How old are you fellows?”

“I’m fourteen, and he’s fifteen.”

A leathery-skinned soldier took off his gold-faced chronograph watch with a black leather band, and extended it to Móric. “You deserve this more than I do.  Don’t try to refuse it.  You deserve a lot more than just a watch after what you went through, but this is the nicest thing I have to give you.”

A primer on Swahili names

Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and lingua franca in eastern and southeastern Africa. The Swahili, or Waswahili, people primarily live in Kenya, Mozambique, Congo, and Tanzania (esp. Zanzibar). Other nation-states where Swahili is spoken include Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan, and Malawi. Outside of Africa, significant groups also live in Oman, Madagascar, Mayotte, and Comoros.

The first recorded documents in Swahili are from 1711, at the time written in Arabic script. In June 1928, an inter-territorial conference chose the Zanzibar dialect of Kiunguja as the basis for standard Swahili. Today, the language is written in Roman script, minus Q and X.

In addition to the familiar CH, SH, TH, and KH, other compound letters are DH, GH, MB, MV, ND, NG, NJ, NY, and NZ.

My unplanned secondary character Marjani Washington, her older sister Subira, and their little brother Zuberi were given Swahili names when they were born in the 1950s. Their parents wanted to give them names more in line with their ethnic heritage instead of blending into mainstream American culture. They also eat a lot of traditional African foods, use the relatively new word “Black” instead of “Negro,” and celebrate Kwanzaa. The women in the family wear their hair in cornrows, in an era when many African–American women straightened their hair.

A sampling of Swahili names:

Unisex:

Chuki (Born during a time of hatred)
Enzi (Powerful)
Hekima (Wisdom)
Imani (Faith)
Kaombwe
Makini (Strength of character)
Nyoka (Snake; much more common as a surname)
Shida (Suffering)
Tatu (Three; traditionally used for a third-born child)
Tisa (Nine; traditionally used for a ninth-born child)

Female:

Adhra (Apology)
Adia (Valuable gift)
Amondi (Wishes)
Anza
Asatira (Legend, history)
Asha, Eshe (Life)
Atiena (Guardian of the night)

Chaniya (Wealthy)
Chausiku (Born at night)
Dalili (Omen)
Fahari (Splendour)
Furaha (Happiness, joy)

Jana (Yesterday)
Jasiri (Courageous, bold)
Kadesha
Kamaria (Moon)
Kiah (Dawn)
Kibibi (Little lady)
Kiojah (Miracle)

Maisha (Life)
Mariamu (Miriam)
Marjani (Coral)
Mchumba (Sweetheart)
Mwanajuma (Born on Friday)

Naki (Traditionally used for the firstborn girl in a family)
Nashipie (Joy)
Nathari (Prose)
Nayfa (Benefit)
Nelah (Gift with purpose)
Nia, Nyah (Purpose)
Niara (Of high purpose)
Nuru (Light)

Paskalia
Sanaa (Artwork)
Sarabi (Mirage)
Sarafina (Bright star; completely unrelated to the Hebrew name Serafina)
Sauda (Dark complexion)
Shani (Wonder)
Skolastika (Orator, rhetorician)
Subira (Patience)

Tambika (Offering)
Tatanisha
Tuere (Sacred)
Wambui
Zawadi
Zuri (Beautiful)

Male:

Amri (Authority, power, command)
Athumani (Third one)
Dai (Demand)
Dunia (Earth, world)
Faraji (Consolation)

Hadithi
Harambee (Let’s pull together)
Imamu (Spiritual leader)
Isaya (Isaiah)
Jelani (Mighty)
Jengo (Building)
Jumaane (Born on Tuesday)

Khamisi (Born on Thursday)
Kibwe (Blessed)
Kijani (Warrior)
Kovu (Scar)
Mosi (First child)
Mulele (Man who runs quickly)
Mwenye (Lord, owner)

Nwabudike (The strength of a father comes from his son)
Sadaka (Religious offering)
Sadiki (Believe)
Sefu (Sword)
Simba (Lion)

Tendaji (Make things happen)
Tukufu (Exalted)
Yakobo (Jakob)
Yohana (John)
Zahur (Flower)
Zuberi (Strong)

An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Let’s talk about the Mengele trope

FYI: It’s absolutely NOT my intent to call any Shoah survivors liars or ignorant. What I’m interested in is the how and why of this commonly-cited trope which isn’t borne out by careful examination of historical evidence. There’s also a moral obligation to represent this period of history as accurately as possible, to avoid adding any fuel to the deniers’ fire.

When I read Joachim Neander, Ph.D.’s excellent rebuttal of Irene Zisblatt’s wildly exaggerated, so-called memoir The Fifth Diamond, I was quite surprised to discover “Dr.” Mengele didn’t perform nearly as many selections as Shoah survivors routinely depict him as having done. He was still a vile, evil POS who shouldn’t have escaped earthly justice, but he wasn’t some all-powerful being who was everywhere at once either.

I totally understand how jarring it can be when we discover something we long accepted as fact is challenged by new evidence, but we can’t keep clinging onto falsehoods because of personal feelings.

There’s a perfect example in that author’s surname, Neander, which is shared by the German valley which gave our Neanderthal cousins their name. (BTW, the H is silent.) When I first started reading about prehistory in second grade (almost 30 years ago), it was believed Neanderthals were the final step before Cro-Magnons.

Then we found out they were distant cousins, and then it was believed they were victims of Cro-Magnon genocide. The latest evidence shows most people of European and Asian descent have 2-4% Neanderthal DNA, with some outliers who have more. There was more interbreeding than genocide. I can’t wait to have an ancestry DNA test to find out how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve got!

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I’ve watched countless testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, and there’s a common line coming up around selection at Auschwitz:

“And this, of course, was Mengele.”
“As we later found out, this was Mengele.”
“And all the while, the whole goal was being pushed towards Mengele.”
“You know this was Mengele.”
“How do I know it was Mengele? How do you know who Bill Clinton is? You see his picture all the time!”
“He was a beautiful German officer whom we soon found out was Mengele.”
“Mengele pushed me to the right.”
“Mengele selected so fast.”
“This, of course, was Mengele.”

This so-called doctor did perform selections, but not nearly as often as survivors report. There were also “Drs.” Heinz Thilo, Horst Fischer, Bruno Kitt, Fritz Klein, and several others. One reason so many survivors may think Mengele selected them is because he did frequently appear off-duty at the ramp, searching for twins and other “medical curiosities.”

Another reason was mentioned by Vera Laska, a Czech political prisoner. She suggested so many people might name Mengele because that’s one of the few names they know, and it’s human nature to want to put a name and face to this kind of traumatic event. Imagining him as nameless, faceless evil wouldn’t be as personal.

On a side note, I loved how Vera admitted she married her husband because his surname, Laska, means “love” in Czech. That’s a really awesome name to have.

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Survivor Emanuel Mittelman, one of the few remaining survivors with his number branded on his chest instead of tattooed on his arm, claimed he encountered Mengele in 1942, though Mengele only arrived in May 1943. Mengele has become such an icon of the Shoah, he’s reported as being sighted even when he wasn’t there.

Many Buchenwald liberators have similar testimonies, that of having encountered the vile Ilse Koch. She and her husband left the camp in disgrace and headed off to prison in 1943, never to return.

Mengele was never one of the camp brass, and was never even the chief “physician.” Yet not only do many survivors paint him as the only one who ever performed selections, but as doing other things going on at the same time.

How could one person be conducting selections for both men and women and children, performing additional selections after realizing not enough people had been chosen for labor, pushing children alive into bonfires (because the gas chambers and crematoria couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with all the Hungarians arriving in 1944), performing selections in Lager C every day, AND doing medical experiments?

Mengele was evil, twisted, and grotesque enough without assigning omnipotence to him. I don’t fault Shoah survivors for not remembering every single detail correctly, but historians and historical novelists shouldn’t perpetuate this trope.