Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. 296pp., 64 b&w illus., filmography, bibl., index. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. $95 (hardcover), $29.95 (paperback), $19.99 (e-book)
In Realizing the Witch, Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers attempt to analyze Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan in its totality: as film, as historical and scientific treatise, and as anthropology. Häxan is Christensen’s cinematic attempt to present his thesis—that the witches of the sixteenth century represent the same psychological phenomenon as the hysterics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Baxstrom and Meyers’s book is structured into two parts and seven chapters, following the structure of the film itself. The two parts focus on the on-screen realization of the witch (Part 1) and on the links between the witch and modern psychiatric understandings as presented in the film (Part 2), but the authors explore all themes throughout the book.
In Part 1, Baxstrom and Meyers explore the texts, images, and theories with which Christensen legitimizes his claims about witches as based on historical fact. In particular, they explore the anthropological nature of his quest—that is, to capture the reality of an “other” on film. The first and second chapters explore the opening scenes of Häxan, where Christensen uses historical images to prove his credentials to the audience and set the stage for later scenes. Baxstrom and Meyers review these different kinds of images and note that Christensen reproduces these still images in cinematic form, bringing them to life. They draw parallels between these techniques and those used by later documentaries. In the third and fourth chapters, the authors explore the gradual formalization of witchcraft evidence and trials over the course of European history and the ways in which Christensen presents and mirrors the experimental approach used by inquisitors. They also explore, in detail, how Christensen draws from witch stereotypes of the sixteenth century to bring the witch to life for the audience.
In Part 2, Baxstrom and Meyers address the social and historical context in which Christensen made his film and analyze the explicitly modern approach to sexuality and mental health he uses to frame these last acts. In the fifth chapter, they explore the implied links between the sexual repression of the Catholic priests in Häxan and their contortion of desire into guilt, both their own desire and that of accused witches. In the sixth chapter, Baxstrom and Meyers analyze Christensen’s choice of presenting the demonic possession of nuns in a convent. The authors argue that while this is not a malady that falls within sixteenth century understandings of witchcraft, Christensen must present possession as being linked to witchcraft in order to realize his thesis—that the witch and the hysteric are one and the same. Here, they argue, Christensen has found himself locked into stretching facts to fully realize his goals. In chapter seven, Baxstrom and Meyers discuss how Christensen’s presentation of hysterics in the modern day was fairly generalized and ignored post-war male sufferers of hysteria (what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder). The authors also explore how Christensen was forced into a more explicit, textual explanation at the end of his film, as he could no longer rely on presenting the witch, or the hysteric, in a visceral, cinematic way. The postscript places Häxan within the context of cinematic history and makes the argument that it should be situated as a precursor to documentary film.
Overall, this volume is an interesting analysis of an early twentieth century film that lay at the intersection of fiction and nonfiction. Baxstrom and Meyers are highly successful in highlighting the ways in which Christensen’s cinematic techniques bring the witch to life. In each chapter, they examine Häxan’s corresponding scenes frame by frame and discuss both the effect on the audience and the truthfulness of the scene. Although Christensen explicitly claimed to be making a work based on fact, reality and fiction become muddled in his presentation, sometimes to emphasize the feelings he wants to evoke in his audience. As the authors discuss, these choices represent the tension between the visible and invisible aspects of what a witch was and what a witch meant in the sixteenth century. Baxstrom and Meyers compare this to Bronislaw Malinowski’s own approach to anthropology, which emerged in the same cultural and temporal milieu and which sought to realize “the subjective desire of feeling” (19) by which others live. Specifically, the authors argue that, although not directly informed by Malinowski, Christensen’s work parallels and reflects the evolution of the anthropological sciences, and in particular reflects the concern among contemporary anthropologists of how to understand and represent both the objective and the subjective realities that shape our world. This parallelism is true of the film as a medium, which aims to evoke an emotional response while presenting itself as a documentary, and of the film as a narrative, which explicitly explores how sixteenth century individuals would have themselves addressed these tensions. The authors follow the threads of this argument throughout the book.
However, despite the highly structured nature of this book, the authors are at times bogged down by the scope and diversity of their aims. In some chapters, Baxstrom and Meyers extensively discuss the factual bases of Christensen’s cinematic choices, whereas in others they focus more concretely on the technical aspects of the film. Although they hint that the film reflects contemporary questions about the role of cinema in reflecting truth, and they position Häxan as an early ethnographic or documentary film, they touch on this subject only briefly in the introductory sections to Parts 1 and 2 and in the postscript. Readers must do the bulk of the work relating these assertions to descriptions of the film itself throughout the rest of the book. Baxstrom and Meyers provide the groundwork for understanding Häxan as an anthropological endeavor, but do not incorporate the more extensive comparative or theoretical framework that would bring their analysis to full fruition. The authors also mention, but do not fully explore, the historical context in which Häxan was made. Realizing the Witch would have benefited from an additional set of chapters that better tied together and explored these points including, for example, a more detailed analysis of how Christensen’s interpretations of the witch can be reevaluated in the light of more recent understandings of what witchcraft meant in medieval and modern Europe.
Baxstrom and Meyers’s Realizing the Witch serves as a case study of an early documentary that predated most cinematic ethnographic works, as well as a view into early twentieth century meanings of the witch. Scholars will find it a useful supplement to other works on early ethnography, documentary film, and anthropology. In particular, this book reveals the many ways in which anthropological ideas were being explored, in parallel, through non-scholarly media such as film. However, scholars will find that there remains substantial work to be done analyzing Christensen’s Häxan, in particular.