Burn them!

Some well-known witch burnings from film.  Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Often noted as one of the greatest films in history…and so it must be.  The close-ups are harrowing.  Joan burned at the stake, but in Day of Wrath, Dreyer showed a woman being burned while lashed to a stretcher.

Ingmar Bergman’s stunning 1957 The Seventh Seal features a witch burning too – no stake.  She’s just a young madwoman.  The virtuous knight who plays chess with Death considers killing her executioners and freeing her, but she’s almost dead anyway.  He gives her herbs to dull her pain.  As she dies, the terror in her eyes stimulates a frenzied existentialist rant by the knight’s squire.  The point?  There is nothing.  It was in the air in those days, but this film is no cliché.

Father Urbain Grandier, the subject of Aldous Huxley’s study, The Devil’s of Loudon, was loosely translated into riotous film by Ken Russell’s 1970 The Devils.  The movie is totally over the top, but totally on the mark.  The representation of the spiritual madness of cloistered nuns, walled towns, and the unspeakable brutality of Church ‘trials’ for witchcraft is disturbing.  It’s also comedic at times – can you believe it?  The movie was extremely controversial – contains nude scenes of nuns orgiastically blaspheming, etc. etc. – and still is not ‘officially’ released on DVD.

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3 Responses to Burn them!

  1. I haven’t actually seen Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc film: that’s cerrtainly one to catch up on. But I have seen Bresson’s “Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc”, and that is breathtakingly good. As ever with Bresson, everything – even the most explosive and dramatic of scenes – is underplayed, butthe emotional intensity reaches an almost unbearable pitch by the end. Afer the burning, the shot of the burnt-out stumps at the stak, all that is left of Jeanne, is shocking; but it is that image of the two birds that is visionary.

    It has been a long time since I’ve seen Ken Russell’s “The Devils”, and my memory is a bit faded. I probably eed to ctach up on it again. (Indeed, afterreading your latest post on this film, I’ll make a point of catching up on it.)

    On the subject of films depicting burning at the stake, I wonder if you’ve seen a film from the late 60s (just a few years before “The Devils”) called “Witchfinder General”. It deals with one of the regular outbreaks of witch-hunting mania that used to break out from time to time in Britain: this one is set in Eastern England during the English Civil War, and the Witchfinder General of the title – chillingly played by Vincent Price, who was a good enough actor to know when *not* to ham – was the notorious real-life figure of Matthew Hopkins. I find this a particularly disquieting film.

  2. Ducky's here says:

    As good as the Bresson is, it doesn’t match up with Dreyer’s film.

    Falconetti’s Joan may well be the finest performance on film.

    Witchfinder is a good showcase for Price who was indeed a good actor when he had a dramatic vehicle.

    • Lichanos says:

      I think that film is known as The Conqueror Worm in the USA, and I can’t find it! I may have seen it as a student, but I may be confusing it with those other Corman films, of which it is NOT one. Maybe ebay…

      Must check out the Bresson. He’s a unique talent.

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