He Who Must Die (Celui qui doitmourir) (not rated), directed by Jules Dassin, plays Tuesday, August 1, at 8 p.m. at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.
Although his directorial career includes a considerable number of memorable films, Jules Dassin remains far too little known in his native country. After making such classics as the prison film Brute Force (1947), the police film The Naked City (1948), and the crime drama Thieves' Highway (1949), in 1950 he fell afoul of the notorious blacklist while directing Night and the City, an important film noir, in London, and stayed there rather than return to the hysterical anti-Communism in America. Reversing the usual pattern by becoming a successful European filmmaker, he later directed such well known works as Rififi, Never on Sunday, and Topkapi.
In 1957 he co-wrote and directed one of his least known and most remarkable motion pictures, He Who Must Die (Celui qui doitmourir), which the George Eastman House will show in the Dryden Theatre on August 1. A French movie (with English subtitles) with an international cast, made by a Jewish-American Communist, He Who Must Die is one of the most powerful interpretations of Christ's Passion in the history of cinema, rivaled only by the French Canadian Jesus of Montreal. In addition to its Christian content, the film suggests something of Dassin's leftist social and political orientation, his sympathy for the poor and dispossessed, his commitment to the class struggle.
In Turkish-occupied Greece in the1920s, the ruling council of a small village prevails upon the Agha, the dissolute military governor, to allow them to stage their annual Passion Play. According to custom, the village priest selects the actors from the populace, including the sexy widow Katerina (Melina Mercouri) as Mary Magdalene, one of her lovers (Roger Hanin) as Judas, and most important, Manolios (Pierre Vaneck), an illiterate, stammering shepherd, as Jesus. Despite their actual personalities and behavior, circumstances, in the form of a column of refugees fleeing a Turkish massacre, conspire to transform the players into the characters they impersonate.
The refugees beg to settle near the prosperous village and cultivate some barren ground, but fearing a loss of income and a disruption of their delicate accommodation with their conquerors, the priest and the village elders reject their plea. The refugees camp on a hillside above the village and vow to stay, slowly starving, hoping and praying for some succor, divine or human. Defying the village council, the disciples, led by Manolios, try to help and, for a while, they succeed in rallying the townspeople, reminding them of their Christian duty to feed the hungry and care for the sick, until the priest and his cohorts intimidate the citizens and thwart their good intentions.
The refugees finally choose to fight against their oppressors and descend upon the village, where a group of armed citizens opens fire, inciting just the sort of conflict of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie that often energizes the work of Dassin and other leftist filmmakers of his time and place. The picture's plot then follows some inevitable but entirely appropriate patterns, with a suitable Pilate to wash his hands of blame and a Judas with a personal grudge to settle fulfilling their roles and assisting the progress of destiny.
Except possibly for Melina Mercouri, the cast of He Who Must Die includes few recognizable names and faces, but some students of the cinema may remember GertFroebe, who plays a village elder, and Jean Servais as the priest who leads the refugees' presence. Aside from the strong emotion and intensity of the major players, the most engaging performance may be Carl Möhner's the Agha, a sly sensualist who governs more by manipulation than violence.
Unlike most Passion films, He Who Must Die never shows the proposed play, but creates its story of transfiguration, sacrifice, and redemption from the materials of its world --- the arid Greek landscape, the strong peasant faces, the ordinary eloquence of common people, the facts of a troubled history, an awareness of its contemporary political situation. The picture suggests a wealth of meaning beyond its surface, including a heartfelt examination of Christianity that echoes Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov as well as the New Testament. Fifty years after its release, He Who Must Die remains an extraordinary work, a French interpretation of the Passion of Christ set in Greece, directed by an American-Jewish Communist. As Yogi Berra might have said, only in America.