Like Becket, Murder in the Cathedral was based on a play – in this case, T. S. Eliot’s (1888–1965) verse play of the same name (1935). After work in Vienna, Berlin (where was production manager of a film written by Bertolt Brecht [1898–1956], whom he befriended), and in the Hungarian Puszta, the Austrian film director and producer George Hoellering (born Georg Michael Höllering, 1897–1980) arrived in England with his Jewish wife in 1936. In 1940 he was considered an ‘enemy alien’ and was interned in the Isle of Man for several months. While he was there, a friend and lecturer in German at the University of London lent him Eliot’s play. It made a huge impression on him and he decided to film it one day.
The play came into being after George Bell (1883–1958), Bishop of Chichester, former Dean of Canterbury and Founder of the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, invited Eliot to write it for the 1935 Canterbury Festival – it was written for a performance in the chapter house of the cathedral. When Eliot and Hoellering met in 1945, Eliot agreed to let the director make the film (Hoellering once described the play as ‘just as far removed from the ordinary stage as from the screen’, adding that this was what had attracted him about it). They later worked together on the adaptation. Eliot emphatically approved of the choices made in the script by Hoellering, even rewrote some of scenes, and wrote at least a whole new scene on the director’s suggestion. When the First Knight/Murderer addresses the present modern audience in close-up (in one of the scenes written by Eliot especially for the film), he is not only enacting a leap of eight centuries: he is touching on the central theme of the film. Do we subordinate the interests of the Church to those of the State? Who is ‘our’ real precursor? Becket or his murderer(s)?
The score was provided by the Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist László Lajtha (1892–1963). Becket was played by Father John Groser (1890–1966), an English Anglican priest who had never acted professionally. T. S. Eliot is the Voice of the Fourth Tempter – who tempts into martyrdom as ‘a way of gaining a lasting spiritual hold’ over humankind. The difference between ‘actively seeking martyrdom and being prepared to suffer for one’s beliefs’ is also subtly addressed in this film-play.
Part of the Medieval Film Club, for more information go to the website.
This screening is open to all and free to attend. No booking required.
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