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Realizing the Witch

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

Richard Baxstrom
Todd Meyers
Copyright Date: 2016
Published by: Fordham University
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  • Book Info
    Realizing the Witch
    Book Description:

    A multi- and interdisciplinary collection of essays addressing ethical, political and aesthetic questions raised in the ten-film cycle Decalogue (1989) by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-6828-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Film Studies
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Table of Contents

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  1. 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.Häxanis 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...

  2. Part I. The Realization of the Witch
    • There is a largely unacknowledged historical tendency and predisposition within the human sciences with roots in much older practices of defining social facts and the discovery, interpretation, and the production of the real itself. In plain language, it emerges from a method that allows the researcher to sense, interpret, and eventually master forces that appear to be nonsensical and yet are held to be essential to the reality of everyday social life. While such invisible forces have gone by many names, one can track a historical per sistence of this epistemological concern with things that cannot be seen or logically...

    • In the beginning there is a word. That word is “Häxan.”

      Benjamin Christensen’s biblical echo is intentional. From the first frame ofHäxan, Christensen is seeking to dismantle the conventional cinematic image. This is an image of a word. In light of what is to follow, the formal conventions of the silent film by definition destabilize any easy relation to the object “Häxan”; it exists multiply. Already reaching into his source material, Christensen borrows Italian inquisitor Zacharia Visconti’s categories of language to show us how the word relates to meaning, expressed in the distance between the thing and the thing...

    • What better place to begin pictorially than in the underground lair of an old witch named Karna? A hoary, wrinkled woman moves busily in her dark underground room, the scene cluttered with a variety of objects that are diffi cult to recognize and yet generate an ominous, dreadful sense that something malevolent is going on here. The old woman tends to a pot over the hearth in the middle of the large, dank room; not precisely the cauldron central to the witch ste reo type, but certainly close enough. An accomplice, a somewhat younger version of the sorceress, enters the...

    • In the third chapter ofHäxan, Christensen returns to his didactic mode of presentation. Through Franz Heinemann’sRites and Rights in the German Past,¹ he presents to the viewer a common investigative technique deployed by inquisitors and witch hunters: trial by water. Heinemann’s image is intercut with another image, a detail of a bound, naked woman undergoing a similar trial, which Christensen tells us is drawn from Eduard Fuchs’sIllustrated Social History from the Middle Ages the Present.² The title card explains the scene: “If she floats, she will be pulled up and burned. If she sinks, the judges thank...

    • FOUR Demonology (pp. 103-130)

      The fourth chapter ofHäxangets to the heart of the matter. It is here where Christensen’s skill as a filmmaker, his facility with historical artifacts and documents, and his understanding of witchcraft and the burgeoning fields of neurology, psychology, and anthropology come together in the full articulation of the film’s thesis. The director brings tolifethe rich visual culture of witchcraft. He draws links to the spectacular illustrative diagnostics of Duchenne and Charcot and his visual interpretation of Freud’s theories of neurosis and the human psyche, which again and again find their way into the film. Playing with...

  3. Part II. A Mobile Force in the Modern Age
    • 1922 (pp. 133-144)

      Häxanwas released in a year when innovation was in the air. The year 1922 saw the release of one of the first “ethnographic” films,Nanook of the North, as well as the refounding of anthropology by Bronislaw Malinowski. But more than the coincidence of the year 1922,Häxanwas released at a moment when concerns with others, the super natural, the recesses of the mind, and even evil itself were coming to be addressed by new means, with fresh commitments and a new set of anxieties about the capacities of observation and science coming to the fore. Our introduction...

    • Christensen, having dazzled the viewer with a visualization of the witch stereo type of the sixteenth century in the film’s previous section, moves in his fifth chapter to a seemingly more familiar cinematic approach. Focusing on the interrogation under torture inflicted upon the Young Maiden—herselfarrested as a witch after Maria’s vengeful accusation during her trial (because all witches know one another)—the film now highlights the intrigue, manipulation, and underhandedness of her inquisitors. Interspersed within this personalized narrative are Brother John’s struggles with his sexual desire for the Young Maiden. Thus, while this section of the fi lm...

    • The film’s sixth chapter begins with a statement that leaves little room for misunderstanding: “There are witch confessions that are totally insane.” At first the penultimate chapter of Christensen’s thesis seems ready to offer more of the same (dramatizations of accusations, inquisition, and punishment of witches), now with the introduction of “insanity” to deepen of the fi lm’s attention to possession and demonic influence. But here Christensen instead shifts into another mode to further his cinematic thesis. His purpose is not only to show that witches arrived at their confessions thanks to more than a little help of the inquisitors;...

    • SEVEN Hysterias (pp. 187-204)

      The most remarkable feature of Benjamin Christensen’s presentation of hysteria is what it is not. By 1922, hysteria had been driven to two poles. On the one hand was the image of the “Viennese” hysteric—effete, often affluent, and nearly always female.¹ This figure may be cliché, but it certainly was a real image in the popular imagination of European society in the early twentieth century. Most important, the figure had changed dramatically from the poor, destitute women treated by Pinel and Charcot de cades earlier.² The female hysteric had evolved.

      On the other hand, a different figure of the...

  4. “How would the Devil speak?” This is Benjamin Christensen’s question in a filmed introduction toHäxanproduced to accompany the 1941 rerelease of the film. Christensen poses this question as part of his defense of his masterwork as asilentfilm. Hearing voices after the fact would “shatter the illusion,” the director asserts. And yet, as we have continually marked throughout this book, there is ample evidence that Christensen has a very good sense indeed of how the Devil speaks. Like the witches, inquisitors, possessed, hysterics, and doctors that have come before him, the director displays all the signs of...

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This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
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