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Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922) is strange and unique. Part documentary, part fiction and part anthropological exposition, the structure of the film’s narrative is tough to pin down. While slippery and difficult to handle, it is precisely the form of the film that makes the picture so engaging and challenging: detailed realism often transforms into disturbing psychological caricature, while consistently being framed by documentary objectivity and metatextual nods to the audience and the filmmaking process.
Christensen opens his picture by telling us that it’s ‘A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures’. The first shot involves an iris-in to reveal a photograph of the director (labelled as such); he stares right back at us, creating a distance between the viewer and what is being watched. This film is, the inter-title and titled photograph suggest, an investigation on display rather than a fiction. The aesthetic of a lecture is continued in the first chapter which is composed only of inter-titles and a number of engravings and models. A pointer is used to indicate specific areas of the illustrations that the inter-titles explain. Christensen uses the first person singular pronoun in this section and, at the same time, consistently refers to other sources, generating in the process a conversation between different authorities: he points out, for example, that ‘The picture of a pyre as well as the following are from “German Life in the Past in Pictures”‘ and, on one occasion, hands over to ‘The English scientist Rawlinson and French scientist Maspero’. Christensen’s light-hearted comments make clear the objective treatment of his subject matter: we could not, with such ease, ‘Observe the eagerness with which the devils tend to fire under the cauldrons!’, if we were terrified we could, at some point, end up in them.
The reconstructed scenes of medieval witchcraft are viewed in the light of this opening chapter’s scientific presentation of the origins of belief. The scenes are remarkable, using low-key lighting and convincing art design to generate an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspicion, itself complimented by understated performances. We see Christensen’s invention in his editing decisions: he drives scenes forward with a confident use of close-ups, point-of-view shots and changes in the framing size and angle. In the scene in which Maria (Maren Pedersen), the elderly woman accused of being a witch, is interrogated by two priests (apparently playing good-cop bad-cop), use is also made of the space immediately beyond the frame. Each of the men has Maria by an arm and they begin to engage in a tug of war. Christensen does not shoot this as a static three-shot but instead shares the action between two static medium shots that each contain a man and Maria but frame out the third. With this construction, she is always partially filling the space beyond the frame, being pulled between the two shots. Instead of being at the centre, she is at the edge: this arrangement reveals more accurately the distribution of power.
Christensen creates some terrifying locations. For example, the pain of the torture chamber is accentuated by a rare movement of the camera. As a body lies supine ready to be stretched, the camera begins to pan left, following the chains that are tied to the feet. With the camera preempting the painful movement of the chains, the shot is dynamically lengthened and therefore, in this case, effective in a way that a static should would not be. But Christensen undermines his own atmosphere in the final chapter of the film. Here, locations are revisited and comments are made both about the psychological causes of witchcraft and the filming process. The tools of torture are transformed into hilarious reminiscences about the shoot: he tells us that ‘One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew when we were filming these pictures.’ Interestingly, this inter-title is then followed by a close shot of the actress, out of costume, laughing and undergoing the process. This shot, then, is a reconstruction of a moment that happened when the camera was turned off. Christensen’s light-hearted tone returns, when he says, ‘I will draw a veil over the dreadful confessions that I forced the young woman to make in less than a minute.’
This short section is illustrative of the larger play between fiction and fact in Häxan. While chapter seven seems to be conclusively demonstrating that witchcraft is a social illusion – a misdiagnosis – of the Middle Ages, Christensen also makes comments that challenge our clear-cut conclusion. Again he turns to another authority, though in this instance she is the ‘lovely old woman who plays the role of Maria the Weaver in my film’. He tells us that, ‘during a pause in the shoot‘ (my emphasis), she said, ‘The devil is real. I have seen him sitting at my bedside.’ The juxtaposition of this inter-title with a close up of the elderly woman’s face, so expressive with age, is moving. I’ve emphasised the fact that this incident happened between takes because it seems that Christensen regularly goes to the boarders of filmmaking – the edge of frame, the instances when the camera is off, the props and style of an anthropology lecture – for his important moments of problematised exposition.
It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?
An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.
In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.
In an attempt to get back to watching and writing about films after a three week hiatus, forced upon me by too much academic work, I’ll just get something down for now. The first film I’ve seen after this break is the first part of Fritz Lang’s 1922 Dr. Mabuse, a film in which trickery is rife.
The original German title, Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, reveals the various forms of manipulation and play that appear in this first part: Der Spieler is often translated as ‘the gambler’ but it can also mean ‘player’, ‘actor’ and ‘puppeteer’. The psychoanalyst Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is all of these things. The opening shot shows him picking one disguise (of many) from a series of photographs fanned out like cards in his hand. Later, he stands above those on the stock market floor, buying when others sell and selling when others buy, accruing a fortune in the process. He cons players into losing large sums of money on gambling tables with his intense and prolonged stare. We see, for example, Mabuse makes Edgar Hull (Paul Richter) mistake his own sight when, despite holding the ten of clubs and the ace of diamonds, he claims to have lost at cards. ‘I lost again,’ he says simply.
We fear our eyes may be faltering too because many of the images in the film hint at full blown surrealism before revealing instead their (stylised) normality. Take the stock market scene as an example. On first sight, the enormous clock that looms over everyone seems odd: not only is it too large but there seem to be too many numbers. It is only on a second viewing that we realise that there are, in fact, twenty-four numbers and that the clock is a twenty-four hour clock. Unusual, maybe, but it is not the terrible and surreal work station on which Freder (Gustav Frolich) toils in Metropolis (1927).
It seems Mabuse’s drive to deceive is powered by an awareness of a social misconception, itself a sort of intellectual trompe l’oeil. He says plainly: ‘There’s no such thing like love – there’s only passion – ! There’s no such thing like luck – there’s only the will to gain power — !’ As emotion gives way to a more primal drive and circumstance reveals itself as an illusion (apparently), Mabuse sacrifices his own identity in an attempt to control other people. He derives not only material wealth from such manipulation but also a more general joyous delight. Later in the film, he tells Carozza (Aud Egede Nissen) it is a wonderful thing to play with people’s faith.
I look forward to the second part.
The title for this post is the movie line of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which is notable for being the first feature-length film to have synchronised dialogue sequences. Sound, of course, didn’t crash into being from nothing: Crosland’s earlier film Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length picture to contain a synchronised Vitaphone soundtrack and recorded sound-effects; an edition of D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street (1921) contains a singing scene and background street noise, both recorded using a (more rudimentary) Photokinema. Equally, The Jazz Singer is not all noise: title cards are still used throughout the film for speech and (what would be) voice over. Even if the use of sound wasn’t governed just by aesthetic design (were there, for example, practical limitations in the early recording equipment?), it seems that the distribution of audible and written text is used as another way of conveying meaning.
The narrative is centred in a number of ways around the dichotomy of (out with the) old and (in with the) new: for example, the divergent wishes of a father and a son, the jostle of religion and secularity, the relationship between traditional and contemporary musical styles and, in a sense, the formation of film conventions before and after recorded sound. Singing especially, which makes up most of the audible track, is used as an indicator of how these various pairs blend.
While the contrast between the spoken words of the father and the son is predominantly represented as a split between title cards and recordings, both their wider social roles (Jewish cantor and stage performer) are allowed singing voices. Simply by being audible, the religious melody and the dance hall tune are raised together above the silence of individual speech. This suggested unity undercuts the complaints of Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland): “For five generations there has been a Rabinowitz as cantor — I have taught you to be one — […] And you — you want to be a common actor — in a lowlife theayter [sic].” We hear the traditional notes of the Kol Nidre and we hear the tune Dirty Hands, Dirty Face: by the end of the picture, the viewer believes these two institutions (religion and the “theayter”) are beginning to overlap and that Jack takes up his rightful place, as cantor in his secular temple, when he sings on stage.
Mary (Mary McAvoy) tries to pull him in one direction, claiming “this [the stage] is your life”, while his mother (Eugenie Besserer) wishes him home: “Jackie, this ain’t you…” Lee seems confused, as he listens to Jack sing the Kol Nidre in his father’s place. He turns to Mary in a puzzled manner and says: “You are listening to the stage’s greatest blackface comedian singing to his God.” I read his tone as bathetic: he believes the situation is an almost laughable step down from a full house on Broadway to a small religious ceremony. But the viewer understands that he has always been singing to this God: a God who he finds in the bright lights of the stage, just as his father does in the synagogue. His tins of face paint and smart suit are his religious robes. He sings for the New York Ghetto, “the daily life of which throbs to the rhythm of music that is as old as civilization.” He sings with the same “tear” that haunts his father’s voice and sounded in him as a young boy. The viewer is allowed to hear the continuity for herself and to understand that the rest, the tit-tat of bickering and daily speech, is silence.