The Hunt – Thomas Vinterberg and the Salem Witch Hunts. (film review)
When recording data about the Salem Witch trials in 1963, Governor William Phips had this to say:
“When I put an end to the Court there ware at least fifty persons in prision in great misery by reason of the extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective, I caused some of them to be lettout upon bayle and put the Judges upon consideration of a way to reliefe others and to prevent them from perishing in prision, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation … The stop put to the first method of proceedings hath dissipated the blak cloud that threatened this Province with destruccion;…” (taken directly from The Letters of Govenor Phips.)
These witch trials were a symbol of the transference of humanity from a medieval past toward an emerging enlightenment and gain much of their significance due to the extraction of false confessions through torture. They are seen as a transitional point between medieval and post medieval periods. Beyond this, however they have captured the imagination of artists for years, primarily those wanting to cast a light on the hypocrisy of organised society and the use of scapegoats to deflect attention from other crimes or problems. Or, in some cases, to unite an ununified community.
One of the most famous examples of this is The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller in 1953, and adapted by John Paul Sartre for the screen in 1957 and then again in 1996 by Miller himself. The Crucible is one of the most famous tellings of the horrors of this time period in the new America.
Interestingly, in Millers play, he increases the age of Abigail Williams from eleven to seventeen to substantiate a physical relationship between Williams and John Proctor, the plays’ protagonist. They had an affair when Proctors puritanical wife was sick, a crime John Proctor will pay for with his life in the end of the play. When John Paul Sartre adapted The Crucible for the screen his emphasis was land ownership and property rights. Millers version was more on the unreliability of seemingly faultless witnesses.
The latest incarnation of this calamitous story is The Hunt (Jagten ) directed by Thomas Vinterberg. The similarities between Millers Crucible and the story of The Hunt are unmissable. The young Klara who initially points the finger at the tragic Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) does so because of her childish experiences of unrequited love. Her lie and the power foolishly attributed to it, immediately attract lies from the other children, in exactly the same way Abigail Williams’ lies spread to the others around her. Small discussion groups are set up that act as makeshift local trials, searching for “evidence” before authorities have been contacted. Soon there is an odd sort of hysteria running rampant with no hope of a connection to common sense. Law becomes powerless to protect the innocent and convict the guilty. People take matters into their own hands. From this, there are very serious consequences. The Hunt does not have the drama of Millers ending even though it hints at it, but it does end on a note that assures us, this matter is far from over.
Unlike The Crucible however, Vinternerg (always an underrated director in my opinion) has plopped this story fair and square in the current day, and given us the horror that comes with realization this can still (and in fact does) happen today. The segment of the Salem Witch hunts that Miller uses have been doctored away so that he could create some authenticity adapting to his audiences eye. he made no apologies that his facts were not consistent with the trials upon which he based his famous play. Most notably, as I stated above, he dramatically increases Abigail Williams age. By bringing this back to the children, in a fascinating twist of creepy history repeating itself, we see the heart of the Salem Witch trials, more true to our current day life, the closer we get to the original facts.
And surely this is Vinternerg’s point. He is clearly frustrated with societies abdication of its number one priority, the care and well-being of its citizens. Children in The Hunt are mostly products of broken homes and waring parents, The parents of little Klara can only be united around a common enemy, and Klara only gets the attention she deserves (and desperately needs) when she has given her parents a common enemy to fight over. Klara has to be innocent because through her we are all innocent. If Klara has lied about something as terrible as her teacher touching her up, what does that say about her parents? What does that say about the society Klara lives in?
The reflected judgement of children is another key pont of The Hunt and the lessons of The Salem Witch trials. Children are a mirror. They are vulnerable and kept by the society in which they have no voice or power. Like women before feminism, they are counted as commodities and their value lies in their perceived innocence. Like all possessions, they are to reflect our wealth back at us – in this case it is our moral wealth. There are only two rules to this strange relationship. No adult can steal the innocence of (or soil the purity of) a child, and each child must live up to the burden of the innocence it is to reflect.
Klara is ignored and misunderstood by all around her except Lucas. Her role is to be innocent, and to constantly reflect the purity of the household and society back to her parents and other adults. Klara definitely has problems, and mostly these stem from the narrowed perceptions of her relationship with the world – not to mention the flaws of the family around her that she keeps absorbing and projecting. Just because her brain hasn’t finished growing doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to find a way to cope with the world around her and her own responses to it. Klara is an innocent, and remains one throughout The Hunt, and this differs from The Crucible. However, Miller deliberately made Abigail older in order to be able to ascribe blame to her. Klaras age makes The Hunt even more frustrating, but it also deepens the complexities of human interaction and highlights the boils festering on the internal organs of community. If Klara is innocent, and Lucas is innocent, then who is guilty? How is this enemy to be found and how are they to be fought?
Vinternerg’s point is that you look within for these answers.
Because children are powerless in our society they hold a unique position. In a way, they are the high priests of our dreams of perfection. Children are often referred to as unsoiled and pure as if wisdom, knowledge and experience were dirt that retard human perfection. Children do not know how to look after themselves and this vulnerability some how makes them weak in our eyes. We hold them like jewels, polish them hoping to see a cleaner version of ourselves smiling back at us. Eventually we have to accept the child has flaws. Usually this is around the tween years, and is commensurate with the child growing up.
Much has been made already of the wonderful filming techniques used in The Hunt, so I didn’t go into that in this review. Also Mads Mikkelsen acting for which he won the top prize at Cannes. These points are all as true for the version I saw as for every other, but I chose to leave them out here in the interests of diversifying the conversation about this very interesting film. The Hunt has just opened in Sydney. Catch it while its playing.