Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible

Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible

Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible

Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible

Synopsis

Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (The Witch, 1922) stands as a singular film within the history of cinema. Deftly weaving contemporary scientific analysis and powerfully staged historical scenes of satanic initiation, confession under torture, possession, and persecution, Häxan creatively blends spectacle and argument to provoke a humanist re-evaluation of witchcraft in European history as well as the contemporary treatment of female “hysterics” and the mentally ill. In Realizing the Witch, Baxstrom and Meyers show how Häxan opens a window onto wider debates in the 1920s regarding the relationship of film to scientific evidence, the evolving study of religion from historical and anthropological perspectives, and the complex relations between popular culture, artistic expression, and concepts in medicine and psychology. Häxan is a film that travels along the winding path of art and science rather than between the narrow division of “documentary” and “fiction.” Baxstrom and Meyers reveal how Christensen’s attempt to tame the irrationality of “the witch” risked validating the very “nonsense” that such an effort sought to master and dispel. Häxan is a notorious, genre-bending, excessive cinematic account of the witch in early modern Europe. Realizing the Witch not only illustrates the underrated importance of the film within the canons of classic cinema, it lays bare the relation of the invisible to that which we cannot prove but nevertheless “know” to be there.

Excerpt

Witches always claim that they do not believe in spells, object to the
discourse of witchcraft, and appeal to the language of positivism.

—JEANNE FAVRET-SAADA, Deadly Words (1980)

It is not living life for an art form to serve merely as an echo of
something else.

—BENJAMIN christensen, “The Future of Film” (1921)

To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.

—GILLES deleuze and FÉLIX guattari, What Is Philosophy? (1991)

The Wild Ride. the Sabbat. Child sacrifice. Diseases, ruin, and torture. the old hag. the kleptomaniac. the modern hysteric. Benjamin Christensen took the threads of phantasm and wove them into a film thesis that would not talk about witches, but would give the witch life. Häxan is a document, an amplified account of the witch insistent on its historical and anthropological qualities, presented through excesses so great that they toyed with his audience’s skepticism as much as their sensitivity. Christensen created an artistic work filled with irrationalities that not only made the witch plausible, but real.

By the time Benjamin Christensen (1879–1959) began filming Häxan in 1921, he had already spent nearly three years conducting research for his film and securing a studio in Copenhagen to accommodate his costuming and elaborate set designs. Häxan was not the Danish actor/director’s first foray into filmmaking, but it would be his most ambitious. the silent film was the most expensive ever produced in Scandinavia. the Swedish film production company, Svensk Filmindustri, provided Christensen with funding . . .

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