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"The Wandering Jew" is a fairly straightforward retelling of that legend. The film's strong points are Conrad Veidt's central performance, a good supporting cast of actors who would later be better known, and some very impressive production values ... including sets and costumes representing several different centuries. The film has an aggressively Christian viewpoint, but cannot strictly be considered Christian propaganda because the legend of the Wandering Jew is not part of Christian teaching: this story isn't in the Bible.
Veidt plays Matathias, a Jew of the Holy Land who happens to be nearby on the road to Golgotha when Christ is brought to the place of Crucifixion. When Matathias expresses a lack of concern for Christ's fate, Christ tells him "You will remain here until I return". A softly glowing light grows stronger, and Matathias stares in horror.
Because of Christ's words, Matathias has been cursed with immortality. He cannot die, he cannot grow older, and he must periodically relocate to another community (and establish a new identity) so that nobody will notice that he never ages. The film is necessarily episodic: we see Matathias trying to blend into one community, then the narrative abruptly jumps ahead to another century as Matathias has relocated yet again.
This film's strangest (and most interesting) aspect is the decision not to depict Christ directly ... neither by image nor by voice. During the early scenes, Christ is apparently located just outside the right-hand edge of the film's frame; Veidt and the other actors turn in profile to the camera and stare at something offscreen. (The entire movie has the feel of a rather creaky stage play, and the feeling is especially pervasive here.) When Christ speaks to Veidt, we do not hear an actor's voice ... instead, we see words (in a very ornate type font) superimposed directly in front of Veidt's face, spelling out Christ's malediction. There is an eerie glow from just beyond the frame, apparently representing Christ's aura. For those who wonder about such things: Christ's voice speaks in a serif typeface.
SPOILER WARNING. The film unfortunately ends rather abruptly and arbitrarily. Matathias has only got as far as the Middle Ages when the curse is suddenly lifted and he is permitted to die. No compelling reason is given for why this particular time and place should be the end of the Wandering Jew's journey. Most versions of the Wandering Jew legend (including the classic science-fiction novel "A Canticle for Liebowitz") state that the Jew is still wandering, right up to the present day, because (so they claim) Christ has not yet returned. It would have been interesting if this film had included an epilogue set in the here and now (England, 1933) in which the Wandering Jew is still living among us.
Peggy Ashcroft (not yet Dame Peggy) is very good and quite attractive in a very small role. Francis L. Sullivan, normally an excellent character actor, is wasted here in a role that lets him ponce about in a bishop's elaborate robes but which gives him nothing to do. The historical details are more accurate than is usual in films of this period.
"The Wandering Jew" is an interesting fantasy, and its religious aspects are less obtrusive than they might have been. I recommend this film.
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