on 27 April 2017
Made by fear and ignorance, witches, ghosts, devils and phantoms populate the demon-haunted world. Witchcraft, sorcery and voodoo are the results, superstitions that satisfy the human need for understanding among some. Never mind that this understanding is flawed and worthless. It brings closure anyway.
Dreyer’s film is a complex study of the intricacies of irrationality. The people in it who come to conclusions and make moral judgements (clergymen and members of the judiciary) do it calmly and soberly. They are not vindictive, or they do not see themselves this way. They act prudently, justly, confidently, upholding the tenets of the laws, religious and secular. The problem of evil in the world is real and must have some explanation. The Devil is responsible for it, but he doesn’t act alone. He has emissaries. Many of these are witches, evil female spirits whose purpose on Earth is to corrupt, leading others to hellfire.
But the problem of madness is that the mad cannot see themselves as mad. They’re caught up in a tautology, a circularity of thought that doesn’t allow them to escape, to step outside to see the problem objectively, clearly. The situation is untenable. They have become paradoxes, enigmas unto themselves.
Women are the witches. When in doubt, blame the women. They are poor and powerless, made so by men. They may protest, but usually in vain. Who are their allies? Who can trust and support them amid so much widespread fear? Thus they face the accusations of guilt put to them largely alone.
Witch burnings raged in Denmark in the early 17th century. Dreyer’s drama takes place in 1623, based on historical records of trials from the period. He filmed it in 1943, Denmark then occupied by the Nazis, the country held hostage to totalitarian rule. Some critics see the film as veiled commentary on the sufferings of Denmark at this time. A valid interpretation. But the greater one is commentary on intolerance and injustice in general, as the Nazis had no monopoly over these human failings. Dreyer’s vision was wider. The problem wasn’t confined to 1943, or even to 1623. In the face of such irrationalities, the problem is eternal. This is what he wanted to say.
Anne is young, beautiful, pure. Or, it should be said, purity becomes her. She looks virginal, innocent, childlike in her chaste simplicity. She is perhaps 21. Her husband, the cleric Absalon, is 50 or more. Why this strange arrangement? Because Absalon took pity on her, protecting her when her mother died while Anne was still a child. Absalon, a widower, raised her and has now taken her as his (second) wife, though the marriage is platonic, unconsummated.
Anne is devout and dutiful, loyal and obedient. She serves her husband well, as all wives are expected to do. She is spotless, blameless. Or so it seems, tensions and conflicts obscured beneath the surface.
The problem is threefold. First, Absalon’s widowed mother still lives. She is Merete, an old, meddlesome, possessive crone. Abasalon, her only child, is thus a mama’s boy who can do no wrong. Second, Anne is young, nubile, unfulfilled. She serves and does well for her husband, but she has other needs too, womanly ones that need satisfying. Mild-mannered and essentially celibate, Absalon cannot or will not satisfy them. Third, Martin comes home. He is Absalon’s son, perhaps 26 years old. Martin knows from letters that his father has remarried but has never met Anne. That is, till now.
Dreyer charges their first meeting with subtle eroticism, first glances telling all. They are surprised and happy, caught in a mutual gaze of attraction and admiration. There is no doubt, either for them or us, where this will lead. Absalon guilelessly tells his son to kiss his new step-mother. Martin obeys, placing without hesitation a small kiss on her forehead. Danger begins in this simple act, the role of Adam and Eve in the garden reversed, Martin handing the poisoned apple to Anne.
Absalon’s love of Anne is paternal. Martin’s is sexual. Merete’s non-existent. She hates Anne. Anne has everything she does not: youth, beauty, appeal. Merete cannot even be sure of her son’s love for herself anymore. Anne gets in the way of everything. It’s natural she should be hated, so, out of jealousy and spite, Merete does.
Anne’s life was drab and dreary. Or it was before Martin arrived. The days seemed endless, unchanging, monotonous. Where was hope? Had there ever been any for her? Life had no purpose.
But Martin’s arrival changes everything for her. Three things she wants more than anything: intimate love, personal autonomy, motherhood. These she can have with Martin. The only impediment, a severe one, is her husband, Martin’s father. Her dream will be unfulfilled as long as he lives.
If Absalon dies, is Anne responsible? This is the question, a private one that will be made public if it comes to it. As the circumstantial evidence of adultery and incest mounts (stolen moments and kisses either observed or intuited), the stakes for Anne rise too in this dangerous game.
There is history to contend with as well — personal history. An old woman in the village (Herlofs Marte) is accused of being a witch. She has cast evil spells over others who have come to harm. She denies the accusation, and we have no reason to doubt her. Her biggest weakness is her defencelessness. She is old and poor. She has no power and prestige, no connections and influence. Her friends, if she has any, are poor too. Her family is gone; she has outlived it. She is thus expendable, a scapegoat if convenience and expedience are needed.
This need arises. Accusations resound. In fear, she runs and hides, fleeing to the home of Absalon, whom she believes will protect her. Why should she? He’s a clergyman, after all, a man of the harsh and dogmatic book. The Bible is a book of many things, of course. There are passages of beauty, tenderness, love, charity and lyricism in it. But it’s also a vengeful and vindictive book, one written in part by bullies and sadists. Herlofs Marte should be careful because she harbours a secret. Which is? Anne’s mother was a witch. Or so Herlofs Marte claims. Absalon thought so too, but he intervened in her trial to save her, contradicting what he knew or believed in his heart to be true. He double-crossed God. He did it for himself, though he told himself otherwise. He said to himself he was humane, which he was, but he is guilt wracked for having saved Anne’s mother. He did it to save Anne too, to have her for himself. That is the case now, as Anne’s mother has subsequently died (though not as a witch). Absalon used the holy scriptures, God, and Heaven for his earthly purposes, for his own selfish, self-gratifying comfort and desires. He has sinned and knows it in the eyes of God.
Herlofs Marte means to blackmail Absalon. She knows he is a hypocrite who lied to the Inquisition, hiding behind the sanctity of the cloth. He knows it too, and trembles because of it. He’s a dead loss, a hopeless failure, he feels. But he’ll keep up appearances because he must, so much riding on this glittering illusion.
Herlofs Marte is captured, tortured and tried among the learned, bearded, robed men. Absalon is among them. In fact, he is one of the lead inquisitors, bound by duty to ask her questions. Will she repent? No, she will not. There is nothing to repent, she says. She also refuses to give names — the names of other witches who have cast spells over the community, spells that have led to disease, death, foul weather, crop failures and other calamities. There are no names. The trial is a hoax. A grand mistake is being made. But all her pleas and protestations fall on deaf ears.
Instead, she blasphemes. Not only does she practice witchcraft, she lies in the presence of the holy men of God to protect herself. She spits in the face of sanctity. There is only one verdict that can be reached.
When she is stretched to breaking point on the rack she confesses. The words are put into her mouth by her inquisitors. They frame the questions and force her to say “yes” to them. They are educated, articulate men. They write edicts and know their biblical passages. They dress well in stately black robes with white ruffs. Herlofs Marte by contrast is in rags, her top torn from her. We see her grey dishevelled hair, her flabby white bare back, her tears. We hear her moans and cries.
Her agonies are watched calmly by the men, sure of the rightness of their judgement and morality, confident that God will be pleased, that his greater glory will be served. Evil has been cornered, captured, stretched and humiliated. It has been tortured, just as it once tortured Christ, their living Saviour. Evil cannot be countenanced. It must be eradicated.
It is. Herlofs Marte burns in the fire. The witch is gone. Others are sure to follow. But for now one wrong has been righted.
From an upstairs window in the vicarage Anne looks down as Herlofs Marte burns. Or not quite. She looks away as the woman is thrown onto the fire, unable to bear the sight. Anne responds for us, for most of humanity. We don’t wish to see Herlofs Marte burn, either. We would prefer to have the clerics burned, the clergy reduced to smoke and ash. Dreyer isn’t so heavy handed to say so, but that’s his private wish too. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have made the film.
Despite the gloom and horror, there’s beauty as ever in Dreyer, as it’s what he loved. He could only make beautiful films, and only made a few of them, forced out of cinema for long periods at a time due to lack of funds, doing journalism and other jobs on the side to keep body and soul together.
The film is divided in two, into lightness and darkness.
Nature is flooded with summer light. The trees, meadows and streams are bright with sunshine. Anne and Martin run as children through it, holding hands, laughing, falling into one another’s arms, kissing in the grass and long reeds near the riverbank. All is bliss: their skin, youth, touch, warmth, breath, sunlight.
The rooms of the vicarage are cold and sombre, dark and gloomy. They reek of piety and morality, of joys and passions denied. They are strictly by the austere book, stripped of any sign of opulence and display — sparse, spartan, empty, functional. Indoors Anne is silent and subdued, her head bowed in sewing or needlework. Outdoors she is playful. She laughs and frolics. She shouts with joy and almost chants the sacred name of Martin to herself and him. She is happy. She is alive.
The film is like a dirge, a steady march to a solemn drumbeat, a medieval cart made by Bosch or Dürer that trundles toward oblivion. We know where we must go with it. So too Anne to her great sorrow. Martin needed courage, strength, conviction, backbone. But this was too much to ask. In the moments of beauty, in the touch of their lips together and feeling of his breath on her face, Anne could believe. It all seemed so close, so real and right, so destined to be. Why shouldn’t light, happiness and love prevail? Why should the darkness of the cloth, book and pious thoughts prevail?
Because the world is demon-haunted. Because people in their fears and ignorance have nightmares. Because hatred and intolerance, not love and acceptance, rule the roost. The good and innocent and pure must die. This isn’t written. It’s just drearily and depressingly enacted. We don’t burn witches anymore. We burn other things in our acts of war, the logic mainly the same.
Dreyer knew all this. His film was made to remind us of it. It’s been called the greatest Danish film ever made, and who am I to argue with genius?