A scene from the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille film "King of Kings"
A scene from the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille film "King of Kings"

This week in 1927: Controversy over Jewish actors in Jesus biopic

Dec. 2, 1927

Rudolf Schildkraut, well-known Jewish actor who played the role of Caiaphas in the Cecil B. DeMille production “King of Kings,” a picturization of the crucifixion story, who has been severely criticized in many Jewish circles for agreeing to play this role in the picture, which is considered dangerous because of its stirring up of religious and racial prejudice, offered an explanation in an interview given at his home in Hollywood to a representative of the California Jewish Voice, Jewish weekly published [in Los Angeles].

“I personally do not believe that motion pictures generally leave any impression on the audience,” Mr. Schildkraut said. “In my opinion the best motion picture can be compared to the cheapest novel. One is interested only as long as one reads the pages and when the covers are closed, the impression disappears like smoke. I do not believe that my roles on the screen have any artistic value. I do it only because I am well paid for it. It is work, one might say, physical labor for which I receive payment. That is all.”

When asked by the interviewer whether he did not stop to think that in playing the role of Caiaphas he furnished the enemies of the Jewish people with a poisonous weapon, Schildkraut stated: “One does not stop to think in the movies. Everything has been thought-out for you in advance. In addition, Caiaphas was one who was installed in the office of high priest by the Romans and it is self-evident that he had to serve the interests of the Romans. At the end of the picture Caiaphas admits that he, as an individual, bears the responsibility for the crucifixion. I can tell you that the scene in the present version at the end was in the original version in the middle of the play. There were many more scenes which brought clearly the idea that Caiaphas takes the responsibility for the crucifixion himself. It was further shown that the thought of his responsibility plagues him so much that he loses his mind. They found it necessary, however, to eliminate those scenes. What could I do then?”