Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Budd Wilkins: Birthing Bad -- Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist Through the Lens of “Nordic Horror"

Birthing Bad: Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist Through the Lens of “Nordic Horror."
by Budd Wilkins

When the always-polarizing Lars von Trier released his expectedly off-kilter take on the horror genre Antichrist in 2009, it was met with predictable critical excoriations in equal measure to any positive assessments. (The films closing dedication to art-house favorite Andrei Tarkovsky didn't seem to help matters much.) Fortunately, Antichrist did not lack for reviewers who took it seriously. Several were canny enough to place the film within the context of Scandinavian horror films or, at any rate, the art-house/horror variety that remains for the most part the only type accessible to North American audiences. Nevertheless, even informed reviewers were content to merely sketch in these perceived influences in the most general sorts of ways. For example, the excellent introductory essay by Ian Christie contained in the Criterion Collection DVD package suggests a sort of historical lineage, through which he supposes it might be productive to understand Von Triers approach to genre and material, but can do no more than briefly limn the interconnections. Seeking to follow in Christie's footsteps, let us attempt to further explicate the nexus of contextual relations by 1) establishing the historical basis for a genealogy of Nordic horror (specifically, the Danish variety) and 2) examining Antichrist in some detail at both the thematic and formal level, in order to assess the similarities and contrasts to its antecedents.

For our purposes, discussion begins with Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922), a remarkable early example of the silent cinema as docudrama (coeval with Flahertys Nanook of the North, the recognized progenitor of that genre) that examines the phenomenon of the European witch craze. Christensen's film was apparently inspired by the directors encounter with the 1487 witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of the Witches] while doing research for possible film topics. Opening with a kind of object lesson, complete with onscreen pointer and packed with copious information delivered via intertitle, Häxan fills its first chapter with medieval woodcuts and engravings pertaining to the history of witchcraft and demonology, as well as more recent diagrams that illustrate pre-Enlightenment (read: unscientific), primarily Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern, cosmological conceptions.

Throughout his film, Christensen is concerned to illustrate the hypocrisy and superstition of the Middle Ages and, while he does not imply that witchcraft never existed per se, he attempts to depict the cultural-historical matrix of forces that contributed to the prevalence of these beliefs. Furthering this progressive agenda, Christensen ends his film with a segment suggesting the parallels between the signs and portents that singled out a suspected witch (intermittent anesthesia of the skin, first and foremost) and the modern psychiatric understanding of the symptoms surrounding hysteria. The advancement of Knowledge, though still imperfect, has banished the irrational and ill-founded bogeymen of Belief.

The connections between Häxan and Antichrist are several: On a formal, organizational level, Antichrist is divided, like Häxan, into discrete sequences. Häxans divisions correspond to its length in reels, but are used to segment its documentary narrative (the object lesson introduction, a second chapter portraying a day in the life of a witch and her coven, the next several chapters given over to an extended case history of accusation, trial and execution, before concluding with its modern psychiatry coda. Antichrist, in keeping with Von Trier's other works, contains a prologue, four named and numbered chapters and an epilogue. The chapters are as follows: 1) Grief, 2) Pain (Chaos Reigns), 3) Despair (Gynocide) and 4) The Three Beggars. The latter, interestingly, refers to a fairly common fairy tale (there are Serbian and ethnic Russian variations) that centers around acts of negligence and abandonment involving a child.

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