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Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist Through the Lens of “Nordic Horror."

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.

Within the confines of its claustrophobic mise-en-scène, Antichrist features a wealth of medieval imagery similar to Häxan, especially in the scene where He (Willem Defoe) investigates the attic space She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has used to write her doctoral thesis on Gynocide (not a Von Trier invention, incidentally). Von Trier's use of these images, however, is more ambiguous than Christensen's overt didacticism. On the one hand, they still count as evidence compiled representations of historical and cultural folly through the ages while, on the other, the violent and chaotic images indicate a growing obsession on the part of She (serving as an objective correlative for her mental state). The fine line between academic inquiry and unbalanced monomania is nicely illustrated in the manuscript He peruses: as He turns its pages, the handwriting steadily degenerates into an incomprehensible scrawl. Whereas Häxan opposes the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Middle Ages with modern, enlightened medicine, Antichrist questions and subverts this progressivism. He is a trained therapist who takes over his wife's grief counseling, against advisement and any conventional rules of ethic comportment, because he is convinced that he knows her best. At some basic level, he represents reason and the Enlightenment project, over against her unreason, linked as it is to Nature. (The site of their cognitive behavior therapy is called Eden and, before their actual arrival on the scene, when He has her envision herself becoming green and melding into the verdant grass outside their remote cabin fastness.)

The final similarity between the two films resides in their reception. Christensen's film was considered quite shocking for its time, what with its images of nudity and (comparatively) graphic violence. Danish censors demanded a laundry list of excisions and the film was banned outright in several countries, including the United States. Required cuts included a number of close-ups of actors faces, deemed unbecoming to Lutheran modesty and thus dangerous. Ironically, this predilection for close-ups had an incalculable influence on fellow Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) consisted of little else, and who would cast Christensen in his controversial 1924 film Michael. Amped up exponentially, the same censoriousness was leveled against Von Triers work, to the extent that alternate versions of the film were presented for acquisition at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, the so-called Protestant and Catholic cuts, the former containing all the explicit nudity and genital mutilation excised in the latter.

In 1941, Häxan was rereleased in Denmark with a new introduction by Christensen explaining his intentions in making the film and further laying bare the progressive social agenda behind its construction. Perhaps because it was now seen as a film a clef with the occupying Nazi forces represented as the callous, brutal agents of the Inquisition, shown throughout the films central chapters committing acts of torture and coercion. Christensen's film was a popular and critical success. Its popularity signaled the continued relevance of such material and so, in 1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer released his own study in hypocrisy and hysteria, Day of Wrath.

The first half hour of Dreyer's film plays like a slight reprise of Häxans central sequence; it begins with an elderly woman, Herlofs Marte, being accused of witchcraft, follows her trial and torture and ends with her burning at the stake. Dreyer, however, has more than historical verisimilitude in mind. For one thing, Dreyer puts forward his narrative more objectively adopting a style that strikes the viewer as both realist and minimalist (though, to be sure, one that does not at all attempt to eliminate the ambiguous). The manifestations of witchcraft are taken more seriously, rather than as cause for social indignation and reform, considered from multiple aspects and even on a theological level. The pastor Absalon and his seminarian son Martin are neither hypocritical nor brutal. If anything, they are as vexed and tortured, psychologically and spiritually, as Herlof's Marte is bodily. Day of Wrath, like Antichrist, unfolds in both registers simultaneously. Ultimately, it may be impossible to decide on or exclude one or the other as causal factors.

Another point of comparison between Antichrist and Dreyers work pertains to his 1932 early talkie Vampyr as much as to Day of Wrath: Von Trier and Dreyer approach Nature as an ambivalent environment. Both of these Dreyer films contrast the natural world in its painterly beauty (pastoral imagery derived from 19th century landscape painters like Millet and Corot) with an obfuscatory, almost otherworldly, quality represented by outdoor scenes inundated with fog and mist. The latter mood envelops Vampyr until the eventual defeat of the ancient female vampire, upon which the young couple in love emerge from the dark wood of error into a world flooded with sunlight and open skies.

Antichrist's dominant mood could well be described by night and fog: What few moments there are indicating a bright, benevolent nature are limited to flashback, as the film grows progressively darker both literally and figuratively. Nature is furthermore uncanny, sending unexpected showers of acorns and hail to besiege He and She, regardless of whether or not She has in some fashion invoked them. (Its suggested at several points that witches possess this power.) In fact, this invocative function is also found in Day of Wrath, where Anne wishes Absalon dead and, moments later, he collapses and dies. Neither film attempts to resolve the matter.

Antichrist consistently conflates the personal and impersonal: a suffering wail (ostensibly, the child Nicks) reverberates indefinitely across the landscape, and shots that bookend this sequence consist of a match-cut between the abundant foliage and She's hair. Soon enough, this equation becomes explicit, as She explains that Nature is Satan's church. Since Woman is ruled by Nature, Woman too must be inherently evil. (Again, the name of their retreat, Eden, keys into this notion, further establishing its pervasive historical durability.)

Furthermore, the notion that time is out of joint that there is some fundamental flaw in the natural order is embodied in the Three Beggars. On one level, they represent totemic animals. (Von Trier admits, on the commentary track for the Criterion DVD, that he first encountered these creatures during some shamanic vision quest.) On another level, by elevating them to the status of a constellation, Von Trier parallels them to the Three Wise Men in Christian lore as announcing the advent of the eponymous Antichrist. All three signify the interdependence of life and death as a deer and its stillborn fawn, the self-devouring fox (pronouncing the fact that Chaos reigns) and the crow that repeatedly comes back to life (in a cave, to boot, a black, bleak parody of Christian resurrection).

As it was in Day of Wrath, the crucible for the conflict in Antichrist centers on differing interpretations of the world and humanity's place within it specifically, the discussions in Day of Wrath between Anne and Martin and the entirety of the dispute over therapeutic methods in Antichrist. As they sit on the bank of a river, Anne singles out for Martin a tree leaning out over the water, its reflection appears to be striving to meet it. For her, it represents longing for union and, by extension, happiness. Tormented over their betrayal of his father, Martin can see only ill tidings: Surely the tree wants to drown itself in the river. Later in the film, after Absalon's untimely death, the two discuss its significance. Anne sees it as providential, a sign of God's approval of their love. Once again, Martin has his doubts. It could, he suggests, just as easily have been the Devils doing. Like the viewer, Anne and Martin are confronted with ambiguity, seemingly random and meaningless events, upon which they must impose a meaning. In Antichrist, the shifting balance of power in the ever-escalating psychological warfare between He and She forces the viewer to adjudicate: Are his motivations entirely benevolent? Did She witness their son as he was about to fall to his death, doing nothing because she preferred the selfish fulfillment of sexual gratification? Is She in fact in the grip of madness and, if so, is the insanity transferable, as the final moments of the film seem to suggest? The truly open work, a notion put forward by Umberto Eco (among others), encourages if not out and out requires the viewer to participate in the construction of the works narrative and meaning. By these standards, both films must be considered eminently open.


Von Trier's concluding dedication to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky raised more than a few eyebrows. Many reviewers, for the life of them, could not gauge the relevance of Tarkovsky's work to Von Trier's aesthetic or ethical purposes. This failure represents a significantly blinkered approach to the film. For those that have eyes to see, there are numerous narrative, thematic and even visual correlatives to Antichrist to be found throughout Tarkovskys body of work. Suffice it for me here to adumbrate only the two or three most germane:

1) Over the course of his seven feature films, Tarkovsky moved ever away from the socialist-realist aesthetic demanded from filmmakers under the Soviet Union, evolving an intricate, open-ended style; his narratives advanced the proposition that their protagonists must come to grips with a run-down, even post-apocalyptic landscape, in which only memory and dream could lend meaning to continued existence. Von Trier maintains the desolation, while evacuating the sense of nostalgia (or Nostalghia, to give it its Russian/Italian title).

2) In Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice (1986), the protagonist, Alexander, sleeps with a woman he believes to be a witch in an attempt to forestall the end of the world. Whether or not hes ultimately successful remains unclear, but the encounter leads him to burn his house down, along with all his earthly possessions. This incendiary finale echoes the conclusion to Antichrist, where He burns Shes body on a pyre and abandons Eden for an unknown fate.

3) The stunted, blighted tree that serves as thematic and visual focal point in Antichrist (She mentions passing by it during her first, imagined trip to Eden; He walks past it at the end, in a slow-motion shot that reveals dozens of corpses lying strewn across the forest floor) undoubtedly recalls the tree at the end of Ivans Childhood (1962). In that films coda, there is a dream (or vision of the afterlife) wherein Ivan runs along the beach and cavorts with other children. Nearby towers a blasted, leafless tree. The final shot (possibly from Ivan's point-of-view) races toward the black bole of the tree, filling the frame with darkness. Thus, in both films, the tree stands as analogue for death and infertility.

Taken together, these patterns of theme and variation played on classics of Scandinavian cinema as well as Von Triers broader engagement with genre and symbolism render Antichrist one of the most bracingly personal, as well as national-cinema-indebted, films to come along in many a year. In an era overstuffed with homogenized, studio-approved mass entertainment, its always refreshing (not to mention heartening) to see that provocation and controversy still have a place in the forum (lets not say marketplace) of international cinema.

Budd Wilkins writes for the highly recommended blog, That Obscure Object of Desire: Cinema

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c. 2011 Budd Wilkins

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