This week will be the last edition of Sabzian Selects, our weekly selection of the online film offer. The lockdown has been a good opportunity to discover films in the comfort of our homes. But the space of the theatre is where cinema belongs. In his text “Leaving the Movie Theatre”, Roland Barthes reflects on the darkness of the cinema, a “substance of reverie” where a “diffused eroticism” is at work in the body and the mind of the cinema spectator. The cinema is a space that shields off the outside world. For the duration of the movie, there is no other reality than the screen with its movements, colours and the sounds that encapsulate the immobile spectator. Barthes writes: “It is in this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated; this invisible work of possible affects emerges from a veritable cinematographic cocoon; the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto: Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.”
In his text ‘Rapture as Resistance. Notes on Leaving the Movie Theatre’, Herman Asselberghs takes a closer look at Barthes’s reflection on the movie theatre.
But before we leave our houses to step inside the movie theatre, we present our last three selected films.
During the lockdown, the independent film club Météorites has presented a selection of films, among which is Häxan by Benjamin Christensen. This silent film from 1922 gives a didactic yet often playful account of witchcraft. Accusations of witchcraft mostly affected women, and the film states that they often were the result of a lack of knowledge of mental illnesses.
In Häxan, one can observe the cinematic fascination for women who appear to be mysterious, hysterical or erratic, which have been remarkably recurring features of many female roles throughout film history.
Set in 1623, Vredens dag [Days of Wrath] (1943) by Carl Theodor Dreyer takes place in the time also addressed in Häxan. Submitted to a patriarchal marriage to a man of power, Anne initially puts effort in her supporting role as wife to her husband. But when his son who is her age appears, he kindles a desire in her – along with hidden powers. Dreyer refuses to provide clarity on whether Anne really masters witchcraft or not. It is only because of her confession that her forces are affirmed. By condemning herself, she validates her power.
In the Dutch translation of a text on Dreyer’s oeuvre, Frieda Grafe reflects on the way women in Dreyer’s films defy the set of rules. But she also points her attention to the role of the fathers, who are stuck in their role model of the “Pater Familias”: the father of the family, and of society. Their tragedy is the recognition that their role might have been played out.
Toni Erdmann (2016) by Maren Ade starts when the role of the father has already been ridiculed for a long time. In the film, Winfried, the father, tries to reconnect with his daughter, Ines, who leads an ambitious life working for an oil-concern. Transcending the “tyrant-father” trope, he disrupts her life with his practical jokes. On one occasion, Ines creates a situation in which she apparently bewitches her colleagues. At this moment, which we will not reveal here, they could have proclaimed her crazy and exiled her to the category of the mentally ill. In the past, women who acted like Ines would have been accused of witchcraft, and later they would have been institutionalized, but in this scene the other men and women sheepishly follow her lead. The film reveals that the definition between witchcraft, psychiatric disorders and behaviour that is called “normal” predominantly depends on the ability to exercise power.
In Vredens dag, Anne initially defies the hierarchies that constrain her passions and her powers, but it’s only in Toni Erdmann that the female character’s authority is validated. However equivocal, the moment when Ines seems to be enchanted, she defines the reality for others to submit to, as they are enchanted by her. Her character finally has the mastery to overcome the role that has been assigned so often to women throughout film history.
Häxan is a fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its pagan roots to its confusion with hysteria in modern Europe.
“The idea of Häxan is relatively straightforward: in light of innovations in psychoanalysis and the biological sciences, Benjamin Christensen advances the thesis that the appearance of witchcraft in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods was actually due to unrecognized manifestations of clinical hysteria and psychosis. Lacking the scientific knowledge and insight of the present age, the spectacular symptoms of hysteria (most often identified in women) were misattributed to the power of Satan and the condition of being in league with him. Deftly weaving contemporary scientific analysis and powerfully staged historical reenactments of satanic initiation, possession, and persecution, Häxän creatively blends spectacle and argument to make a deeply humanistic call to reevaluate both the understandings of witchcraft in European history and the contemporary treatment of hysterics and the psychologically stricken. In doing so Christensen takes on an anthropological disposition, offering Häxän as an expression of his own creative trials and as an empirical visual thesis to be tested in the world.”
“As concerned as the film is with expressing a particular idea regarding the relation between witchcraft and hysteria, it differs from many of the documentaries that come immediately after it, largely due to Christensen’s explicit understanding that any idea communicated in a film must be expressed cinematographically. Quite unlike the sober documentary ideal that John Grierson formulated at the end of the 1920s and elaborated through the next decade via the influential British social documentary movement, Häxan does not conflate expressing ‘the real’ cinematically with simple ‘communication’. Displaying an affinity with scientists of the mid-nineteenth centry, Christensen very clearly aspires to ‘make nature speak’. What distinguishes Häxän is the fact that its creator had no expectation whatsoever that the real will simply ‘speak for itself’.”
Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers1
- 1. Richard Baxstrom & Todd Meyers, Realizing the Witch. Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible Door (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 7-8.
The young wife of an aging priest falls in love with his son amidst the horror of a merciless witch hunt in 17th century Denmark.
Anne: “But how can we part? Think of everything that binds us together. Look at the tree over there.”
Martin: “It is bent by grief.”
Anne: “No, by desire.”
Martin: “No, by grief for us.”
Anne: “By the desire for its own image.”
“Anne, de jonge heks in Vredens dag, is getrouwd met een veel oudere man. De meest perverse en armste van alle predikanten, die zich krachtens zijn positie een jonge vrouw heeft genomen na de dood van zijn eerste. Uit zijn vorige huwelijk heeft hij een zoon die even oud is als zijn jonge vrouw, die hij nooit aangeraakt heeft. Wanneer de zoon opduikt, zwicht het systeem: de opeenvolgende generaties beginnen door elkaar te lopen. Anne is slechts een zwakke schakel in de keten. De natuur doorbreekt de culturele overlappingen. “Het verwarren van opeenvolgende generaties wordt in de Bijbel net als in alle traditionele wetten vervloekt...” Je voelt het gevaar langzaam opkomen: een onschuldig spelletje verstoppertje in het begin, om de oude dominee te verrassen, daarmee vangt het bedrog aan, de zondeval.”
“With Day of Wrath, Dreyer tackled head on for the first time his perennial preoccupation with witchcraft – or rather, with woman as witch – and came up, of course, with a verdict of not guilty to the black arts of superstition, but guilty to having power over the souls of other human beings. That ‘guilty’, however, is subject to reservation, since “everything that lives is holy,” and Anne's crime is simply that “life delights in life”.
“Set in 1623 – 33 years after the real Pedersdotter’s execution, but during a time when people still believed without any question or doubt in witches – and shifting the setting from Norway to Denmark, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it must have felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, part of which involves a sensual form of camera movement that he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine – a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey – but a hypnotic experience both to follow and to keep up with. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the interrogation of Hertlofs Marte (Anna Svierjier) by her husband. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement in both her curiosity and her stealth in satisfying it while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment from both – at the same time that it suggests an anticipation of her future impulses and desire by literally racing past her.
Enhancing the strange sense of presence that results from this emotional complexity and ambiguity is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching – giving scenes an almost carnal impact that becomes lost in smudgy and static-heavy prints. And, in keeping with the subsequent practice of Robert Bresson to replace images with sounds whenever he can, Dreyer uses sound to force us to imagine many of the details of the pursuit, torture, and extermination of an old woman in the opening sequences of the film rather than show us any of these things in any extended detail. There are many ways of interpreting the eerie story. We can believe that the characters, oppressed by sexual repression, conjure up fantasies about witches; or we can believe that witches really exist, and this story is showing us how one particular society, working through the church, produces them. Either way, Dreyer’s hatred for intolerance and institutions, the clergy in particular, is evident throughout, though all the characters can be said to have their own reasons, and simple hypocrisy is never an issue. The bottom line is that everyone in this society believes in witches – including the women suspected and accused of being witches, who regard many of their own passions as a form of sorcery and power. Herlofs Marte, the old woman accused of witchery in the opening sequence, who asks for Anne’s help in hiding her, never denies being a witch, and Anne never does either. And even though Dreyer’s focus throughout is on his characters’ psychology, there’s really nothing in the film that supports the proposition that either of these women is being falsely accused or misunderstood.”
- 1. Frieda Grafe, ‘Carl Theodor Dreyer. Geistliche Herren und natürliche Damen’ in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 9-10 (februari 1974). [Vertaald door Sis Matthé, gepubliceerd op Sabzian, 29 januari 2020.]
- 2. Tom Milne, The Cinema of Carl Dreyer, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1971) 126.
- 3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Figuring out Day of Wrath’, jonathanrosenbaum.net.
A practical joking father tries to reconnect with his hard working daughter by creating an outrageous alter ego and posing as her CEO's life coach.
« Si Toni Erdmann est extraordinaire, c’est qu’il prend tout. C’est un film « qui rend heureux » comme le promet l’affiche française, mais aussi un film triste à mourir, qui traite de tant de désespoir qu’il est difficile de s’en relever. Après coup, on ne comprend plus l’espèce d’hallucination collective à Cannes qui a fait de Toni Erdmann une pure comédie. Le film rend heureux oui, mais parce qu’il est d’une intelligence folle. C’est un grand film dialectique, jamais satisfait, qui creuse et creuse encore. Il contrevient à toutes les règles du cinéma d’auteur contemporain : c’est l’anti-cinéma du pitch, mais aussi l’anti-cinéma minimaliste, c’est un mélange entre la complexité et la maturité du grand cinéma moderne et les sensations émotionelles du cinéma populaire. C’est aussi l’anti-cinéma de salauds, avec son héros prêt à donner sa vie. Le triomphe à Cannes, qui ne doit surtout pas faire croire à un film consensuel, c’était tout simplement le choc de voir un chef-d’oeuvre. »
“Toni Erdmann vraagt om mee te gaan in het mislukt toneel dat hij in Ines’ leven opvoert: het is een ontmaskering bij gratie van een bizarre maskerade. Het carnavaleske is hier subversief omdat, in de woorden van de Russische literatuurcriticus Michail Bachtin, “het gewoonlijke onbetwiste gezag van de elites, en daarmee de vastgelegde betekenissen en waarden van het gezaghebbende discours van de officiële instanties erin wordt uitgedaagd” – dat is exact wat Toni Erdmann doet. Het zorgt voor transgressie van de eerder aangehaalde grenzen: als ontregelende factor brengt Toni Erdmann Ines in contact met de Roemeense werkmannen die ze moet ontslaan en laat hij haar op het paasfeestje van onbekenden (die denken dat hij de Duitse ambassadeur is) Whitney Houstons ‘Greatest Love of All’ zingen. Wat als vader niet lukt, doet hij als ongenode gast: “kijken”, en tonen, “hoe ze leeft”.”
Rasmus Van Heddeghem2