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Who are the Fanatics? The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Witch, and the Day of Wrath

Two priests laughing at the outset of an interrogation that ends in death when Joan of Arc reveals she is unsure of how old she is. 

Two priests laughing at the outset of an interrogation that ends in death when Joan of Arc reveals she is unsure of how old she is. 

Tucked away in the fury of a "witch hunt" stirs shared irrationality and the imagined justice of extra-legal processes. The torch-toting mob passes by the window shouting blunt slogans. Hands on guns. Sacred objects profaned. As the hate parade fades into another neighborhood, relief. Or not, if we are truly the hunted. The throng will come again. 

In the pause between attacks, magic might stir amidst hope and despair, a defense for the defenseless. Magic.

Curious term, "witch hunt." On one hand, it's clear, like fox hunt. We're hunting witches. On the other hand, the mob itself displays extreme fanaticism and typically forgoes the societal norms it purports to uphold. The hunters become, in a sense, a manifestation of the traits or behaviors they judge. 

Carl Th. Dreyer returns to faces of judgement frequently in his films. In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), they are often empaneled. With his patient camera passing over their scowling faces, the hatred and anger are plain. But the longer you look, the smaller these men become. Sillier. And Dreyer lets us look. Their rigid self-regard would almost be comical, if they weren't also conducting the business of interrogation and execution. 

And then you notice that they find the inquiry funny, at least in part. They laugh with each other. Giggle. Pick their ears and joke around. Is it discomfort over excising legal pressure on someone who claims to speak with God? We're not sure. But they are enjoying themselves. When she tells them she is a child of God, they laugh. 

I am tempted to say that the individual fanatic is created or perhaps reinforced by the judgement of others. In this light, a better term for Dreyer’s depiction of this unfortunate person could be victim. And witches could generally be thought of as victims in the face of fanatical mobs, or priesthoods. Of course, a fanatic can be part of an assembly, like a fanatical sports fan, but the precision of fanaticism effaces individuality, at least to a degree. In order to be a fanatic, you must unwaveringly subscribe to an ideology emanating from a group. You must efface your ego. 

Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Elie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson in Robert Eggers' The Witch. (2015)

Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Elie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson in Robert Eggers' The Witch. (2015)

To a degree, this dynamic plays out in the tension between father and daughter in Robert Eggers new-ish film, The Witch (2015). The father (Ralph Ineson) is a bewildered believer striving to create heaven on Earth. Cast out from a colony, he and his family stake a claim to a patch of wilderness. He's not smart, but I suspect he may be kind and misguided. It's never stated what exactly the family is guilty of, but the exchange in court suggests it is his set of beliefs, too tightly held. Their (his) version of Christianity appears to run counter to the functioning of that community. Unwavering in their beliefs, they are cast out.

The family struggles to find their way. A child is stolen, mysteriously swept away on a breeze into a thicket. The woods menace. The slow burn of suspicion penetrates the family hearth. At a loss to explain their misfortune, the mother begins to suspect evil. And, in a sense, she is right. Eggers makes an interesting decision to make sorcery and paganism a real force, not a derivative religion or myth. So when the eldest daughter, Thomison (Anya Taylor-Joy), embraces witchcraft, we see it as a logical pathway, in keeping with the era. Here Eggers could have equivocated and blandly asserted that Christianity is just another set of beliefs. He doesn't. Instead, he succeeds in differentiating Christianity from sorcery, while maintaining the difficult position that they exist on a shared spiritual plain. 

So who is the fanatic here? Is it Thomison for becoming an evil witch? Is it her father for holding too strongly to his interpretation of Christianity? Is it the tribunal that cast them out? Or are the fanatics the witches in the woods who steal, castrate, and disembowel children? Whoever it may be, fanaticism is deeply engrained in the film, and punishment, meted in all directions, appears to be the remedy. 

Donald Trump, a contender for the Republican nomination for president. (Photo:  Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times.)

Donald Trump, a contender for the Republican nomination for president. (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times.)

In The Need for Roots, Simone Weill's complex thoughts on punishment are difficult to parse. Among a number of puzzlers, she says things like "nothing in France deserves to be called punishment." It's easy to jump to conclusions, but this quote in the negative helps us see, "The need of punishment is not satisfied where, as is generally the case, the penal code is merely a method of exercising pressure through fear." I suggest this is one motivation behind the fanatical mob: an interest in applying pressure through fear. In other words, sadism. 

Sadistic joy is with us in the form of American fasci. In Boston train station on a night in August 2015, two men beat another man with a metal pipe and then pissed on him because of the hatred welling up inside them. He had done nothing. They said they attacked the man because a current presidential candidate "is right" about immigrants. They reportedly laughed as they walked away, enjoying their violence. 

On March 19, 2015, outside Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, Farkhunda Malikzada was accused of burning a Quran. It turned out to be a lie, she had done nothing, but that didn't matter. A crowd gathered, beat her to death, ran over her body with a car, then stoned the corpse for several hours until they burned it. 

Elias Canetti calls this the Baiting Crowd. The entire description is worth reading in full, but here is one thought, “A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men.” It would be a mistake to consider this an endorsement. Canetti's use of "safe," "permitted," and "recommended" are intended to be precise descriptions of the crowd's self-regard and not a justification of the behavior. 

The thing about the Kabul murder is that it appears to have been instigated by a single man named Zainuddin. Farkhunda and Zainuddin had been arguing about certain Islamic strictures. As an observant Muslim and student of religion, Farkhunda told him he should not sell religious charms. He responded by saying she had burned the Quran. She denied it, but it made no difference. A baiting crowd formed, swelled with urgency, and the men who participated killed her.

Who is the fanatic? 

Carl Th. Dreyer’s film, Day of Wrath (1943), steers us away from the anonymous ecstasy of the Baiting Crowd towards an almost yin-yang of fanaticism, a seesawing balance of action and reaction that eventually crashes down on the weakest person in the group, often based on juridical proceedings. In this case, the tension lies between Anne Pedersdotter (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman married to Pastor Absalon (Thorkild Roose), an older man who is a kind, distant partner who stole Anne's childhood, and the pastor's mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam). Simultaneously, Anne's mother, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), is pursued by a mob for being a witch, a fact that deeply disturbs Merete and casts an early judgement on Anne that is eventually her undoing.

Lisbeth Movin as Anne Pedersdotter in Day of Wrath (1943). 

Lisbeth Movin as Anne Pedersdotter in Day of Wrath (1943). 

What's interesting here is that Anne does not initially care very much about witchcraft. She has only a passing knowledge of various and mild kinds of magic, small gestures she learned from her mother or perhaps friends. And she can "see." It's only after she falls in love with Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), that she begins to believe that she, too, has the powers of sorcery. When she wishes that her husband Absalon would die, and he does, she believes she has become a witch and suspects she had a hand in killing him. At the end of the film, Merete publicly accuses Anne and convinces Martin to join her side. Anne is then judged by a group of village elders. In the end, Anne confesses her guilt over the dead body of Pastor Absalon. And she believes it.

Like Eggers' film, Day of Wrath takes witchcraft seriously alongside Christianity, avoiding an atheist's conviction that religious beliefs of all stripes are the source of all evil, although they are often evil, and with an eye towards a dark mystery in human nature, an apparent need to judge and be judged by sets of rules that are completely made up by us and frequently have no basis in fact or reality. We then cling to those rules, sometimes so tightly that punishment ensues.

Perhaps it's true what Simone Weill says, "Punishment is a vital need for the human soul."