Superstitious fears through the ages

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With a budget of almost two million kronor, Heksen (Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages) was the most expensive Scandinavian silent ever. It premièred in Stockholm, Malmö, Göteburg, and Helsingborn on 18 September 1922, and 7 November in Copenhagen.

In 1919, director Benjamin Christensen discovered inquisitor Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) (1487) in a Berlin bookshop. For almost 200 years, this was a huge bestseller second to only the Bible.

Kramer called for the extermination of all “witches,” with detailed descriptions of torture to extract “confessions” before burning at the stake. This played a major role in the increasingly cruel, brutal, barbaric persecution of “witches” till the 18th century.

From 1919–21, Christensen studied everything he could find about “witches” and witch-hunting. The original playbill by the première included a long bibliography.

Though he was Danish, his funding came from Svensk Filmindustri. This provided complete creative control, and money to buy and refurbish the Astra studio in Hellerup, Denmark.

To maintain a dark hue, Christensen and his cameraman, the venerable Johan Ankerstjerne, only filmed at night or in a closed set.

Filming ran from February–October 1921, followed by a year of editing.

Though the film received many positive reviews, it was banned in the U.S. and heavily censored in other countries. In 1941, there was a Danish re-release with a long intro by Christensen and different intertitles. In 1968, a shortened version was released with a jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.

Film critics and scholars widely consider Häxan to be Christensen’s masterpiece.

The film opens with a scholarly examination of the history of the belief in sorcery and evil spirits, and how earlier societies saw the universe. Historical illustrations, woodcuts, and a mechanical animation are presented with commentary.

We then move to sorcerer Karna’s underground home in 1488, where she and her assistants prepare potions with snakes, frogs, a thief’s finger, cat feces, sparrows, and a dove’s heart. One of her clients gets love potions to win a fat monk’s heart.

Meanwhile, a neighbor spies on two med students who’ve dug up a body for an autopsy, and denounces them as witches.

The Devil (Christensen) frightens a monk and seduces women, most notably Apelone, an old woman he tortures with moving and disappearing gold coins.

Chapter 3 begins the story of Maria the Weaver, an old, poor woman accused of witchcraft. Jesper the Printer has fallen ill with dizziness, and his wife Anna is convinced he’s bewitched. Lead divination confirms this.

Maria comes to beg, and Anna gives her soup. Eager for someone to blame, Anna accuses Maria of witchcraft, and the visiting inquisitors haul her off.

Maria cracks under cruel torture, and gives a false confession. She says she’s birthed many of the Devil’s children, with Karna and her coven as midwives. Maria gives details of a witches’ Sabbath, and implicates Anna, her mother, and many other women who’ve mistreated her.

Young monk Johannes is coerced into denouncing Anna’s sister. Another monk promises to smuggle her out if she reveals the secret of thunder water, but it’s a cruel trick.

Chapter 6 explores tools and methods of torture. One of Christensen’s actors insisted on trying the thumb screw herself.

Christensen then uses the story of Sister Cecilia to  illustrate how many nuns, suffering from nervous tension, caused entire convents to break out in alleged insanity and demonic possession.

Chapter 7 opens by saying many women accused of witchcraft were old and poor, often with physical deformities and conditions like tremors. In the modern era, they’re taken in by nursing homes and pious organizations.

Christensen says the actor playing Maria not only believes in the Devil, but says she’s seen him by her bedside. Her prayerbook’s illustrations are shown.

Christensen retrospectively diagnoses “witches” with neuroses caused by “hysteria,” which could be humanely solved in modern clinics.

Though hysteria has been soundly debunked by countless doctors and scientists, superstition is still rampant in its own way today, and the elderly and poor still suffer.

Though Christensen claims over 8 million people were burnt as witches, that number is extremely inflated. I’ve heard as low as 40,000 and as high as one million. But regardless of the real number, those were innocent people whose lives were ended because of superstitious fears.

“Gud, låt min själ få komma till mognad innan den skall skördas!”

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If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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The Phantom Carriage, above all the other vintage horror films on tap for October and early November, is the most appropriate for the holiest day of the year. It’s about Fate, destiny, self-reflection, redemption, trying to amend past wrongs and hurts, life, and Death.

The Phantom Carriage was my long-awaited thousandth silent, first watched on New Year’s Eve 2015. Due to its milestone position in my still-growing list, it’s really, really special to me. I’m emotionally bonded to it, just like my first silent, Metropolis, or my first Rudy Valentino film, Blood and Sand.

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The film is based upon Nobel Laureate and fellow limper Selma Lagerlöf’s 1912 novel Körkarlen (literally Wagoner, translated into English as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!). It takes place in early 20th century Sweden, and begins on New Year’s Eve. Appropriately, it released 1 January 1921.

Sister Edit is a Salvation Army missionary who’s dying of tuberculosis. She’s been sick for only a year, but the disease advanced very quickly.

Her last request, to see David Holm, stuns everyone by the deathbed.

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The search for David is unsuccessful, though his wife comes to the deathbed. David (played by director Victor Sjöström) is spending New Year’s Eve drinking and smoking with two friends in a graveyard, near a large clock tower.

David tells a story about his friend Georges, and this story within a story turns into a story within a story within a story. The last person to die during the year will become a phantom charioteer harvesting souls.

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We then get back to the story within a story, where Georges says that’s why he’s so afraid of something fatal happening on New Year’s Eve. Then we resume the main story, going back and forth between Sister Edit’s deathbed and David in the graveyard.

Missionary Gustavsson finally finds David, who refuses to come. After Gustavsson leaves, one of David’s friends insists if Sister Edit wants to see him, he must go at once. David’s refusal to go turns into a knock-down, drag-out fight as the clock edges towards midnight.

David doesn’t exactly emerge victorious from this brawl.

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The phantom carriage arrives, driven by Georges, who’s stunned to learn who’s taking over his duties. David demands Georges put him in the cart and take him to hospital, but Georges says no living souls ride in that cart. By the time he arrives, it’s too late for a doctor. Georges also tells David he must face the consequences of the evil he’s wrought during his lifetime, and blames himself for the horrible turn David’s life took. If David hadn’t fallen in with Georges, he’d still be living a happy, good life with his family.

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We then move back to the story within a story device, as we learn what led David to such a state. We see his early happiness with his wife and children; his descent into drunkenness and jail; his devastation when he returns from jail and discovers his wife left him; and his determination to give his wife a taste of her own medicine.

After this, it’s back to the graveyard, and then we return to the story within a story as we see what happened last New Year’s Eve. David, by then sick with tuberculosis, came to a new Salvation Army station, his heart full of rage and ice, and was quite rude and cruel to both Sister Edit and her colleague Sister Maria.

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In spite of David’s rudeness and the danger of germs, Sister Edit mends his coat while he’s sleeping. She’s pleased to help the first guest God sent them. Her kindness is repaid with rudeness and mean-spiritedness, but Sister Edit remains undeterred. Before David leaves, she asks him to return next New Year’s Eve so she can see the results of her prayer for the first guest to have a good year. David says he’ll return to show her the futility of her prayers.

Georges says it’s time to fulfill that promise.

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Georges drags him to Sister Edit’s deathbed, and Sister Edit begs for one grace day so she can make things right. There follows yet another story within a story, as we see how Sister Edit reunited David and his wife, followed by their marriage’s acrimonious unravelling.

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I won’t spoil anything that happens after this point, but suffice it to say, this film is a haunting, intense, emotional powerhouse, with an unforgettable ending.

I’ll close with this film’s famous, twice-repeated prayer:

“Gud, låt min själ få komma till mognad innan den skall skördas!”
(“God, let my soul come to maturity before being harvested!”)