There’s nothing subtle about Jules Dassin’s 1957 film He Who Must Die, whose screenplay (by Ben Barzman and Dassin) is adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Greek Passion, but that choice is entirely intentional. Dassin makes no attempt to mimic the conventions of a Hollywood studio production, creating instead a somewhat stylized presentation of an allegorical drama that hits all the harder because of its abandonment of naturalism. The result is a powerful film that raises issues as relevant today as they were 65 years ago—in fact, questions of what the prosperous owe the less fortunate will probably never go out of style.
He Who Must Die is set in 1921 during the Greco-Turkish War, in a small town in Crete occupied by the Turks. There’s no question whose side the filmmaker is on—the Turkish governor (Gregoire Aslan), whom the locals call “the Agha,” is presented as the very picture of bigotry, decadence, and irresponsibility. In fact, he wouldn’t be out of place in a silent-film portrayal of the corruptions of Babylon, dressed in richly embroidered clothing, surrounded by sumptuous displays of food, and enjoying the company of a beautiful young singer named Youssofaki (with implications that the young man’s services extend beyond music). The Agha is also given to saying things like “Christians are Allah’s mistakes” and viewing any difficulties between groups of Christians as beneath his dignity to acknowledge.
The townspeople are preparing to present a Passion Play, in which local people are cast for a dramatic performance of events in the final period of the life of Jesus, as presented in Christian tradition, including Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It’s a local tradition, and the townspeople are overjoyed that their mayor, Patriarcheas (Gert Fröbe, perhaps best known as the Bond villain Auric Goldfinger), has convinced the Agha to allow them to continue this tradition. Casting is done by the town council, who choose a handsome but tongue-tied shepherd Manolios (Pierre Vaneck) to play Jesus, the widow Katerina (Melina Mercouri) to play Mary Magdalene (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call Katerina a prostitute, but she’s known among the menfolk to be available to them in a way that “respectable” women are not), peddler/letter carrier Yannakos (Rene Lefevre) to play Peter, and the saddler Panagiotaros (Roger Hanin) to play Judas.
The Greek Orthodox Church is central to life in this town—the church bell is rung to summon people for important announcements, which are made in the church, and the priest Grigoris (Fernand Ledoux) is recognized as a moral authority by the townspeople. He embraces that role, and even the casting announcements are taken by Grigoris as an occasion to remind the townspeople to consider how the lessons of the Passion apply to their daily lives and to be their best selves going forward.
Dramatic preparations are interrupted by the arrival of a group of refugees from the mountains whose village was burned by the Turks. Both groups are of the same religion and ethnicity, and both are led by priests: Fotis (Jean Servais) in the case of the mountain villagers. The mountain people arrive bearing symbols of their religion, including a church banner, a bible, and iconic paintings, so the commonality among the two groups is impossible to miss, and as they live on the same island, you’d think that offering life-saving assistance would be a no-brainer. But the mountain villagers are desperate, while the townspeople enjoy some prosperity and don’t wish to endanger it, even by granting so simple a request as allowing the mountain people to farm some land currently not being cultivated.
When your focus is on yourself, it’s easy to find reasons to not help someone else. What if the new arrivals are carrying diseases? Who is going to feed them until their crops bear fruit? What if they upset the occupying Turks?—and so on and so forth. Much of this dispute is played out between the two priests—the smartly-groomed Grigoris representing the well-off establishment, while the wild-eyed, wild-haired Fotis proposes a more elemental understanding of the obligations of anyone who claims to be a Christian.
Another translation of the title of Kazantzakis’ novel is Christ is Recrucified, which gives you an idea how the Christian ideals espoused by the villagers (and to be fair, many people elsewhere, of whatever faith) hold up when tested by a relatively minor challenge. Feed the hungry, house the homeless? They’re wonderful as abstract statements of how one should behave, but can quickly be dismissed as unreasonable, impractical, or just plain dangerous to the status quo when confronted by real people with real needs. The speed with which apparently rational humans can flip from one response to the other recalls the proverb that while people with enough to eat have many problems, a person who is starving has only one.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this story to director Jules Dassin, an American film and theatre actor, director, writer, and producer who was blacklisted by Hollywood after his name was named before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Fortunately, he was able to stay in the film business by to Europe, creating a body of work that includes, besides He Who Must Die, Rififi (1955), Never on Sunday (1960), Topkapi (1964) and Promise at Dawn (1970). Many of his European films, including He Who Must Die, star the woman who became his second wife, the noted Greek singer, actor, and politician Melina Mercouri (she served in the Greek legislature and became the country’s first female Minister of Culture and Sports). | Sarah Boslaugh
He Who Must Die is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber, with a street date of Sept. 6. The disc includes an audio commentary by film historian and filmmaker Daniel Kremer.