KinoKultura: Issue 43 (2014)

Interviews with Vsevolod Benigsen and Andrei Bogatyrev about Judas (2013)

By Frederick H. White (Utah Valley U)

At the beginning of November 2013, both scriptwriter Vsevolod Benigsen and director Andrei Bogatyrev took time out of their busy schedules to answer some questions[1] regarding their film Judas (Iuda, 2013), an adaptation of Leonid Andreev’s Judas Iscariot and Others (Iuda Iskariot i drugie, 1907). In this film, Judas tries to steal money from a wandering prophet and his disciples. Once caught, Jesus absolves the thief and gives him the pilfered money. Shocked by this unexpected benevolence, Judas decides to join the group in order to understand His message. Soon after, however, Judas comes to believe that only he understands the prophet’s message and that the apostles are only blindly following their teacher. Judas argues with them, but fails to make them understand the divine truth. Afraid that His teachings will disappear forever, Judas decides to betray the prophet. Once Jesus is arrested, none of the apostles come to their teacher’s defense. Only Judas follows Him through His persecution and crucifixion. At the end of the film, Judas contemplates his action and stands before a lone tree, perched on the edge of a cliff, looking back at the camera and laughing in knowing recognition of his fate.

Vsevolod Benigsen studied acting at the Theatre Institute (GITIS) and then scriptwriting and film history at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK). He is the author of four novels, numerous plays, screenplays and short stories. He has been shortlisted for several major Russian literary prizes, including the Big Book Prize and the NOSE Award. Benigsen is also the director of the film State of Emergency (Avariinoe sostoianie, 2011). As many do these days, Benigsen maintains a presence on the web for those interested in his creative endeavors.

 

Frederick H. White: Your script for Judas is based on, and follows quite closely, Leonid Andreev’s “Judas Iskariot and Others.” Was fidelity to the original important for you?

Vsevolod Benigsen: Well, yes and no. From the beginning, I wrote, rather, from the main idea. After all, Andreev is following the biblical plot in order to create his story. Understandably, it is difficult to digress [from the Bible]. In Andreev’s text there is almost no dialogue. So, I had to come up with the dialogues, as well as the monologues. It is here where the director [Andrei Bogatyrev] and I attempted to elucidate, elaborate. The only thing that does not belong to me or to Andreev is Judas’ final monologue. It was written by the director. And, alas, I think it was a mistake.

FHW: What, in particular, did you dislike about the final monologue of Judas?

VB: Suddenly he begins to talk about the fact that he is bad, that he has committed much evil in general and that he has robbed some woman a hundred years ago. None of this has anything to do with the story. It is as if he is about to kill himself because he robbed some woman and generally was a bad guy. It diminishes the pathos of the story, turning the figure of Judas into a mere “bad guy” who decides all of a sudden to kill himself just because he has always been bad. But the true reason lies much deeper and yet is more concrete; he thought that he had performed a divine mission, but in fact it was the devil’s work. Or as Mephistopheles says about himself— “Part of that Power which would / the Evil ever do and ever does the Good.” Only here it is the opposite. A recollection of some woman immediately neutralizes everything, reduces it to banality—oh, I am bad. Then why did we even bother to watch the movie, if it is that simple?

FHW: It seems to me that the key moment in the film is when Judas tells the prostitute: “I betrayed Him for His own benefit, for His own sake.” Did I understand the intent of this as possibly the key moment—at least in terms of Judas’ own motivation for betrayal?

benigsenVB: Of course. But almost every moment [in the film] is more or less important. And the conversation with Peter after the betrayal and the moment of the arrest of the Teacher. Everywhere Judas takes this line. He thinks that he is just doing the “dirty work” of God. His only mistake is in doing good through evil—the ends justify the means, so to speak. And there are things that are immutable. Betrayal is betrayal. Pride is pride. When he realizes this, it is too late.

FHW: One Russian film critic has written: “Christ became Christ because of Judas from Kariot.” What do you think of this reaction?

VB: I do not agree with him, because in the paradigm of Christianity, Christ is the Son of God. So, he became Christ because of God, and not because of Judas. For me, it is like 2 + 2 = 4.

FHW: Yet, if you believe that Jesus was to be crucified so that he could die for the sins of mankind, do you not think that someone had to betray him? If the answer is yes, then do you see Judas as the instrument of God?

VB: Of course, this is a complex question. But you can ask the question in another way – what if it is Judas who has to make the choice? What if the temptation is offered not from God, but from the Devil? In the end, let’s be honest—WHAT IS THE ARREST ALL ABOUT? Is it really about finding Christ? (This was ABSOLUTELY not difficult; they knew all of them; they lived out in the open.) Is it really in order to give Him a kiss? Ha! As if the Romans did not know, what Christ looked like? Yes, they would have arrested them all at once and in prison, Jesus himself would have said that he was Christ - he would not have lied. As a result, Judas really has very little to do with it. Sooner or later Christ would have been arrested. There is no need to put the cart before the horse.

FHW: Andrei Bogatyrev already is quoted as saying: “Andreev was so far ahead of his time that his ideas are modern and now are open for interpretation, and with them comes controversy.” Do you also think that Andreev’s work reflects current concerns?

VB: If you look deeply, it does. Christianity is in a profound crisis. It concedes to Islam in integrity, constancy, [and] a certain dogmatism. Islam is more attractive to young people. It becomes a sort of outlet for rebellion. As a result, of course, we need to think and to reflect.

FHW: If there is a “crisis of faith” in Russia and if you believe that art can change people’s lives. What do you think the “take away” is from this film? What change might a film like Judas evoke in a person or a society in crisis?

VB: I have always thought of the art of cinema (or any art for that matter) as a provocative weapon. Not in a vulgar and superficial sense, like some feeble-minded artists imagine, but in the sense that art should provoke emotion, a thought, a reaction – personal or social. Art poses “uncomfortable” questions and makes people revise and reconsider some of their well-established and sometimes fossilized notions or beliefs. Certainly, this is just one of the objectives that the arts pursue (there are other facets like education, entertainment, social criticism, etc.), but starting a discussion can be important and useful. Just like The Living Corpse by Leo Tolstoy launched a great deal of argumentation over the issue of divorce in Russia. Or as Tolstoy put it once: “It’s not a shame to change your views; it’s a shame not to change them.” The “take away” is multifaceted. There is a practical message like “before you decide to kill someone in order to spare him from his suffering, think twice if you are really about to provide help and deliverance.”  But that is a ridiculous application of the idea. Basically, it is about the fact that everyone has his motives and reasons, which makes every person a universe trapped in a small corporeal capsule. And sometimes the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions.

 

A graduate of the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) with a degree in documentary filmmaking, Andrei Bogatyrev (AB) joined Rossfilm studio in 2006. He is the director of almost a dozen documentary films and television programs. In 2009, Bogatyrev wrote the soundtrack for the film Friday. 12 (Piatnitsa. 12). In 2011, he directed his first full-length feature BUggY (BAgI, 2011), which was accepted for the Moscow International Film Festival’s Perspectives competition, where it earned a Special Jury Prize. The film has received further recognition, including the Rising Star Award at the 4th Canada International Film Festival; official selection at the 56th Valladolid International Film Festival where Bogatyrev was nominated for Best Director; Best Foreign Feature film nomination at the 6th Tenerife International Film Festival. Judas is Bogatyrev’s second feature film.

FHW: Was it important for you that Judas closely followed Andreev’s text “Judas Iskariot and Others”?

Andrei Bogatyrev: No. I think that much of Andreev’s text is multi-faceted and in many places it can be interpreted in different ways, so my main task was to select a way into the text... in some places I was successful and, in my opinion, in some places I was not.
On set, I thought through three new episodes (the conversation with John about his little stones; the last monologue of Judas and the scene with the prostitute), so the screenwriter [Vsevolod Benigsen] and I introduced several new nuances.

FHW: What led to the last monologue of Judas, the one that you just mentioned, in which Judas contemplates the evil things that he has done, especially the robbery of a woman, whom he had previously helped?

bogatyrevAB: At the very end of the filming day, when we were shooting Judas’ last monologue, I realized that...something was wrong... This was a major disagreement that I had with Vsevolod Benigsen; he believed that Judas was wrong, and I [believed] the opposite, that he was right... For me, there remained a question—what can a person say after everything that has happened—and I decided myself that it must be [in the form of] a confession...

After having done everything and even after most of it has been exposed, [Judas] remains a mystery even to himself and does not repent for his sins.

So, for an hour I wrote the scene, which I gave to Aleksei Shevchenkov [who was playing Judas]... The sun was setting; it was necessary to shoot [the scene] quickly and Aleksei said that he understood the general idea and would come up with some of the subtleties on the fly.

Thus was born the scene in which Judas tells a little story from his life, which is distant from the [greater] universal process, but illustrates that Judas has become cognizant of his life and perhaps is ready to repent or even to suffer punishment... The rain, as a symbol of purification, comes down at the end [of the film] and during the credits.

FHW: In my interview with Vsevolod Benigsen, he suggested that “the temptation [of Judas] was not from God, but from the Devil.” He did not accept that it might be necessary that someone betray Jesus? Yet, if it is the case then Judas might be seen as the instrument of God. This seems to be one of Andreev’s positions. Still, Benigsen argued that the betrayal was part of the Devil’s deception. Do you agree?

AB: No.

When Benigsen and I worked on the script, unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we had different points of view on many things.

I believe that even if the Devil exists (I am pretty skeptical about the concept of the Devil), then the entire artifice is not very worthwhile. In my opinion, we are all instruments of God, we are all sons of God, and each of us has our own task; Christ had his own and Judas had his. For me, in a metaphorical sense, Judas is like kindling, like coal, that [is necessary] if you are to make soup for the world, Christ in this case, which is why I have an episode where Judas asks John to show him the stones which he collects; each stone symbolizes an apostle, and when John holds out the piece of coal as Judas and says that this is him... For me, this piece of coal is Judas, [symbolizing] that he should heat things up so that Christ can do his part.

FHW: One Russian film critic has written: “Christ became Christ because of Judas from Kariot.” What do you think of this reaction?

AB: For me, it is important that each person finds his own path; Judas was his, and Christ his. Of course, Jesus needed Judas and Judas needed Christ. I believe that it is all logical and that without Judas, certainly, there would be no story or it would have been very different.

FHW: In the film, Judas says to Jesus, “I have to go my own way! True?” Jesus answers, “It is true.” It seems to me that Judas has accepted his “role” and that he must betray the Teacher. Jesus agrees. Did I interpret this scene correctly? In your opinion, which scene of the film was the most important for understanding the role of Judas?

AB: There were a lot of important [scenes], but one of the most important is this episode with the coal... There, Judas understands his role. And even after he understands his role, he is still worried, as he is a human being; he is scared because it is complicated and not unambiguous.

FHW: Film critics have noted that a number of Russian filmmakers are once again beginning to re-examine religious themes. Do you think that your film is part of this movement?

AB: I believe that it is not only filmmakers, but that generally intelligent, rational people are beginning to rethink religion and its role in society. Many are trying to change their orientation within the religion and I am glad that I am one of them. Neither the Orthodox Church nor even the Catholic [Church] suits me. The emphasis is on ritual, but many have forgotten about the essence of what Christ said. My Judas and Andreev’s Judas tries to get at the divine truth; he wants to understand it himself and to find his own way.

We do not live now within this emblematic religious system , [as we did] for example 200 years ago, because everything has to evolve, change and I think that this, in fact, is going on now – this is a movement forward, an impetus to rethink and perhaps even to delve deeper into the subject, but not as individuals [like those] who have thought about it [before], for example the same Andreev, [Jorge Luis] Borges and [Mikhail] Bulgakov, but [now] as quite a large collection of people who can no longer comply with the old emblematic system, because it has stopped working.

FHW: Do you know Borges’ story “Three Versions of Judas,” in which God takes the form of Judas because he cannot condemn an individual to eternal damnation? The argument is that someone has to betray Jesus, and as a result, God takes the form of Judas. In a similar fashion, do you know about the picture that Andreev drew depicting the heads of Christ and Judas? They are bound to each other by a crown of thorns, unifying both of them as if one in the same.

AB: Yes, of course, I have read Borges, but I did not know about the picture. For me, Judas and Christ are like a battery with a + and a – in order to give a current.

Regarding Borges, in my opinion, I do not concur with the Christian point of view on this issue, especially now. Eternal damnation, what is this? Who curses whom? Each person has a unique path to God, and only God sits in judgment. So I do not subscribe to Borges’ idea (although I find it a very interesting idea!). In my opinion, there is a divine plan, which does not negate someone’s personal liability; in the movie there is a scene in which Judas tells Matthew a story of the fisherman who lost everything and killed a righteous man.

FHW: For whom is this film?

AB: For me :)

But if you try to make sense of it, then perhaps the film is for those same [people], for whom the book [was written]... For those people who have a desire to compare their own thoughts with the thoughts of another person who is thinking about this [same thing].

I hope that my film is for thinking people, but since I made the film with no desire to return or to recapture the money, I can say that I made it the way that I thought that it needed to be done, although I now understand that if I were to make it once again, there is much that I would change and probably improve.

Frederick H. White
Utah Valley University


Notes

1] These interviews were conducted by email, in Russian, with the translated final version checked by the interviewees.


 

Frederick H. White © 2014

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Updated: 06 Jan 14