Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

Cinematic Graveyard – Are These the Last Days of Theatrical Cinema?

It is amazing how quickly things can fall apart.  Last year, 2019, we were seeing international and domestic box office hitting record levels, led by the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, and other top tier franchises.  And entering the beginning part of this year, we were also seeing surprisingly strong numbers for January and February.  It may have been forgotten in all the mayhem, but we saw the originally predicted failure of the Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) movie actually turn into a modest hit, grossing over $100 million domestic.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard in March of this year, leading to a nationwide shutdown of all non-essential businesses, which of course included movie theaters.  Suddenly, a major industry that has continually operated for a century without disruption suddenly has found itself unable to operate due to the mandated health guidelines of the country.  The major movie studios have likewise been blindsided by the effects of the pandemic, but they also had the benefit of other options to deliver their product to their audiences.  Movie theaters don’t have that same luxury.  They must be able to operate in order to survive as a business.  Since the pandemic has started, the vacancy of movie theaters has caused the industry to burn through much of their yearly finances just to pay the building costs alone.  AMC, the largest chain in America, is pretty much on life support right now as their credit rating has dropped them into junk bond territory with default and bankruptcy imminent.  Though theaters have reopened in some parts of the country, the health regulations have also made it impossible for any theater to fully return to pre-pandemic levels, and that has led many Hollywood studios to opt out of premiering any new movies right now, in fear of another shutdown due to another wave of the pandemic or the full closure of the theatrical industry in general.  Which has led many to believe if 2020 may have spelled the end of the theatrical industry as a whole, and it’s making many others to speculate how and if movie theaters can ever recover, and if it’s even worth saving.

Like I mentioned before, such a thought would not have even occurred to any of us just a year ago.  Last year at this time, we were seeing the movie Joker breaking all sorts of box office records.  On the surface everything looked good for movie theaters, as people were packing in like sardines to see the big new tentpole films from all the major studios, as well as giving surprisingly strong box office to smaller movies, like the eventual Oscar-winning Parasite (2019).  But, as the pandemic has shown us, what looked like a stable industry proved to be anything but.  The biggest chains were certainly hard hit by the pandemic, but the ones hit even worse were the small, independent theaters.  These are the ones that serve small communities, or offer alternative art house fare to their local audience, and shutting down business has proved to be devastating to them.  It is estimated that without financial help that 60-70% of these small theaters could disappear forever, leaving many film goers without a venue to see a broader spectrum of cinema available out there.  There’s something about that void that even the likes of Netflix can’t fill.  That’s why so many notable people within the film industry have campaigned for congress to include pandemic relief for all the ailing theaters out there, and it’s one of the few things out there that genuinely has bi-partisan support across the industry and culture.  One hopes that congress will consider such a bailout, but given the up and down nature of the election this Fall, it’s uncertain what might happen.  And living with all that uncertainty is what is driving the current gloomy outlook on the theatrical industry as a whole.  Every week now, we are receiving news of yet another major tentpole film either uprooting from it’s release date to move to another, sometimes delaying a full year, or just bypassing theaters all together in favor of streaming.  And the end of the tunnel is still not within sight.

Though it’s easy to shift the blame over to the government and how they responded to the pandemic, but the state of the theatrical industry also falls on the failures of the theater chains themselves for not being able to manage such a long term crisis like this.  Like I pointed out before, AMC is in the most precarious position of the big chains, because of the overwhelming amount of debt that they’ve procured just to stay afloat.  Earlier this year, they proclaimed that they had secured funding that could see them through the worst of the pandemic and help them return to business as normal.  This assertion was made back at the beginning of the Summer, with the belief that theaters would be reopen across the country by the Fall and that all the Quarter Four films would still meet their intended release dates.  Looking at the state of things right now, movie theaters (including AMC locations) have indeed reopened in many parts of the country, but the biggest markets, which account for nearly half of all box office, are still closed.  And still having nearly half of the box office out of reach has led many studios to opt out of screening their movies this year, seeing that the pandemic is still making it too risky to return to business as normal.  With this being the case, AMC’s once rosy outlook has turned pretty sour, and it led to their eventual downgrade at the stock market.  Now they’ve boxed themselves into a no win situation.  Closing the theaters once again would significantly weaken their business even more, and yet staying open is causing them to burn through much of that economic lifeline that they needed to survive.  But, it was AMC’s own hubris that also contributed to this situation.  In order to become the industry leader, the company had been taking on massive amounts of debt pre-pandemic in order to fuel their massive expansion.  Before the shutdown, Leawood, Kansas based AMC could boast that they had a foothold in every major market in America.  But the cost of that expansion was predicated on the company being able to remain profitable year in and year out.  With the shutdown, AMC suddenly found themselves underwater far more than their closest rivals, Regal and Cinemark, and there is no easy rescue for them on the horizon.  Their massive amount of personal debt makes them too risky an investment, which hurts their chances of being saved by a larger corporate buyer.  And what it shows is that part of the dire situation for the movie theaters stems from an industry that was already teetering to begin with.

There is blame to extend to the studios as well.  One of the biggest mistakes made this year in retrospect was Warner Brothers deciding to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) into theaters while the pandemic was still raging.  The Labor Day weekend release of the film was touted as a triumphant return of movie theaters to normal operation after being completely shuttered throughout the Summer.  However, it became apparent very quickly that the box office was anything but normal.  Tenet opened at a meager $6 million on it’s opening weekend, and to this day has only generated about $50 million at the domestic box office.  By comparison, that’s what Christopher Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk (2017) made in it’s opening weekend, and Tenet has only reached that mark after a month and a half.  Suffice to say, the experiment did not work.  Sure, Warners and Nolan have stated that Tenet was intended to have a long, protracted run at the box office, basically a marathon rather than a sprint, but there was a very different consequence to their decision to release the film.  With a major release like Tenet moving forward, the movie theaters across the country re-opened far too soon, making it more difficult to do business in the immediate aftermath.  With Tenet not being able to light up the box office, all the other studios moved their tentpoles off of the schedule, seeing that the time was not right for them to make the same move.  And now, movie theaters are facing the harsh reality that they have nothing big to draw audiences back to the theaters for the rest of the year.  All they have is Tenet, and a bunch of small budget features that maybe bring in a handful of people.  This is what’s hurting movie theaters right now, because they are essentially operating at a loss each week, and it’s at a time that they can’t afford to lose any more money.  By being so insistent that their movie was going to save the theatrical experience, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan may have ended up accelerating their downfall.  That’s why we are seeing more and more theaters looking into their future and seeing only the end.

That’s one of the reasons that the second largest chain, Regal, followed it’s UK-based parent company Cineworld in deciding to close all it’s locations once again for the foreseeable future.  The next big tentpole on the calendar is Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and it’s unknown at the moment of this writing if that may end up being moved as well.  What we are looking at right now is the possibility of a year without any more blockbuster movies.  The movie studios are essentially in a wait and see mode right now, hoping that an eventual vaccine will squash this pandemic soon and make it possible to pack in the theaters once again.  But, it’s also going to depend on if those theaters will still be there in the end.  That’s why there is the push to raise funding for these failing theaters, but we’re also seeing resistance to that as well.  Many people see the end of the theatrical experience as an inevitability, and with streaming dominating the market at the moment, it seems like a lot of people are comfortable with the idea of never having to go out to the movies ever again.  After all, the big chains like AMC have in a way dug their own grave, and the market had been oversaturated with blockbuster movies to begin with, making it impossible for the film industry to ever turn a profit unless they can get more people to fork over more money for expensive tickets.  The mid-market movie theaters roughly never had a chance to compete with the way the market had pushed in the direction that it had.  Only the big chains in the big markets could provide Hollywood with the box office it needed, and that cyclical arrangement just came crashing down over the last year.  In many ways, this year has been something of a reset for the industry.  The people who are going to the movies when they can are watching movies that otherwise would’ve been drowned out by the blockbusters.  We are seeing a re-emergence of the low risk, mini-movie as the lifeline for movie theaters at the moment, and it’s leading the film industry to see more of the value of these kinds of movies as something to procure for the future, after nearly ignoring them over the last decade.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen once movie theaters are allowed to re-open to pre-pandemic levels.  Are audiences going to return like nothing happened, or is the movie theater industry irreparably damaged?  What might end up happening is a significant reduction of the theater market as a whole.  AMC, Regal, and Cinemark may end up closing many of their locations across the country and selling their leases on the buildings, just to shore up their dwindling assets.  Without a bailout, many of those beloved independent theaters may also be a thing of the past, which would significantly diminish the charm of movie going overall for a lot of people.   The industry will likely endure, but it will be a shell of it’s former self, especially when compared with last year.  And that reflects badly on Hollywood, which needs robust box office to justify the enormous budgets given to their tentpole features.  As we learned from the likewise failed experiment of Mulan (2020) on Disney+, audiences aren’t willing to pay a super high price for Video on Demand either.  As of right now, the movie industry is at a crossroads; do they still move forward with investing in blockbuster films that may not have the ability to generate enough box office to break even, or do they conserve what they have and play it safe until things begin to level out?  Right now, companies like Disney and Warner Brothers are beginning to lay off a significant number of their employees, which indicates that there is going to be some belt-tightening for the next few years.  Like with the theatrical market, this is a crossroads moment for the production side of film as well, as we may witness a sea change in what kinds of movies get made from here on out, and how many get made in the first place.

A lot of what Hollywood does in the near future will be determined by what we do in the present.  A lot of people are understandably apathetic towards the theatrical experience as a whole, but for the many who value the presence of a healthy theatrical industry, we are at a point where it’s up to us to give them the help that they need.  Many small movie theaters are setting up their own funding campaigns in order to draw upon donations from their local communities, and I strongly urge anyone to chip in what they can to help them.  Making our voices heard to congress and the White House is also important, and writing to your local Senator or Representative would be very helpful towards getting movie theaters the much needed bailouts that they need.  There really isn’t a partisan impediment on this particular issue, as movie going really does extend across party lines, and all it really needs is the attention to where it can’t be ignored.  But, most important of all, it matters that we ourselves get involved in saving our cinemas.  What this year has proved is that the activity of going out to the movies was just something that we took for granted; as it would never go away.  And now, we are indeed seeing something that we never thought was possible happen right before our eyes; the potential doomsday for movie theaters in our country.  There is a demand there to save our theaters; just look at the resurgence of the Drive-In Movie Renaissance that has miraculously formed in the absence of four-wall theaters.  But to save the industry from destruction it involves action on our part.  Speak up and give back wherever you can and demand that our movie theaters, big and small, get the help that they need.

As Patty Jenkins, director of the Wonder Woman films said in a recent interview, “Shutting down movie theaters will not be a reversible process.”  Her worries are justified, as there is a real existential crisis going on with the movie and theatrical industry right now.  With things going the way they are right now, with no clear sense of what direction to take, the movie industry may be forever changed, and not for the better.  That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for an industry that saw such a huge leap forward in the last decade.  Hollywood may not be ready to put itself in a reset mode, but given the likely downturn for many years in the global box office, they’ll have no other choice.  There are some positives on the horizon.  We are getting closer to having an effective vaccine to combat this deadly virus and put a swift end to this pandemic.  And as bad as things are at the box office here in North America, they are actually returning back to normal in Asia and Europe.  China in fact is generating box office openings in the hundreds of millions again, which would’ve been unthinkable a couple of months ago.  What happens here domestically will likely depend on us as an audience.  Are we ready to go back to the movies?  One hopes that the months away from the big screen will drive the demand up even more once there is a big enough movie that demands the big screen experience.  It also depends if the big chains are able to weather these next few months and find the necessary funding to keep their doors open.  So, are movie theaters on their death bed, waiting for the end?   It’s hard to say.  Maybe we are resigned to this being the end, or maybe we’ll do our part and help the industry come roaring back, possibly even stronger, like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  For me, I’m hoping for the latter, because I always look forward to a good sequel.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Review

You know the old saying; that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Living through the pandemic year of 2020 is giving us a daily reminder of why it’s important to know our history in order to avoid the pitfalls that have dragged us down before.  The experience of a botched pandemic response is making us look back at the mistakes made during the 1918 pandemic, and how so much of it has fallen in line the same way.  The social unrest related to the misuse of force from law enforcement and the government is also making us look again at a similar time in America when people were having to reckon with the state of our country.  Like today, protests and riots were gripping cities across the country.  The difference was that civil unrest in that time was due to the unpopular Vietnam War.  Though the war was a major catalyst of protest, the decade before had seen a lot of civil unrest due to the fight for justice and equal rights for many the African American community.  The year of 1968 was a particular turning point for America and it’s shifting culture.  Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, and the American Left, which had been fighting hard for Civil Rights and an end to the War for years, was now demoralized and splintered, and facing a tough future in an election year.  This led to the infamous Chicago Riot outside the Democratic National Convention, where many of the anti-war protestors clashed with police officers and caused havoc within the city.  These events, along with the over zealous response of Mayor Daley’s police force, were largely observed as what brought victory to President Richard Nixon in that 1968 election, and of course, all the progress that the American Left had hoped to have gotten accomplished out of their protests only ended up leading to a backwards slide in their cause.  And the Nixon administration would in turn break the law within the White House and further engage in Vietnam for many years more.

This pivotal point in the history of American resistance would be most exemplified by the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7.  In what has since been observed as a politically motivated move to make an example of “dangerous” left-wing agitators by the Nixon Administration, seven of the most high profile participants were put on trail in Chicago for what was described as “crossing state-lines to incite a riot” which is a federal offense.  Though the men were found guilty, their imprisonment had the opposite effect, and they became heroes of resistance to a new generation of Anti-Establishment protestors.  The story of the 7 has carried on as a monumental moment of defiance in the face of oppression, and it still inspires people today to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.  The story has been especially popular to filmmakers in Hollywood, who have tried many times to bring the story of the 7 to the big screen.  Aaron Sorkin wrote his treatment for a dramatization of the the infamous trial shortly after leaving his show, The West Wing, in the mid-2000’s.  For a while, it looked like Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film, eyeing it as a possible next project after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and with actor Heath Ledger in a lead role.  However, the writer’s strike of 2007 put the project on hold and Ledger’s untimely death also dealt the movie another blow, which led to Spielberg moving on shortly after.  After a while, Paul Greengrass began to circle around Sorkin’s screenplay, with Ben Stiller in tow to help produce and star.  But further delays led them to leave as well, and eventually Amblin studios, which held the rights, decided to let the project go.  Once it landed at Paramount, a slew of other directors and actors came and went.  Then Netflix stepped in to bring in the final needed funding the movie needed, and more importantly, Sorkin himself stepped in to direct the movie himself.  And the timing for this kind of movie could not be more perfect given what’s been going on this year.  The only question is, was the delay worth it and is it the movie we need right now in our own turbulent time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduces us right away to the men who would go on to define the movement, observing their moments before they made their way to Chicago.  We meet straight laced, grass roots anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the flashy, irreverent founders of the Yippie Movement Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and two protestors caught up in the middle, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).  In addition, to these seven, another defendant is put on trial, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who rightly points out that he has no connection to the other defendants and is only being tried there as a means of connecting his radical group with the others, and he’s there without proper counsel.  The trial is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has little tolerance for disruption in his court.  Defending the Chicago 7 are two lawyers, the more reserved Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankmen) and the seasoned and confrontational William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).  On the other side, representing the Justice Department of the United States, are US attorneys Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), under the direction of new Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman), who is still sore about a perceived insult from out-going AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).  Through testimony and flash backs, the events of the infamous DNC riots are presented to us, piecing together how each individual played their part in what happened, and allowing us to see if any of their actions did indeed cross the line.  When not in the courtroom, we see the many different personality types begin to clash, particularly between the more pragmatic Hayden and the show-boaty flash of Hoffman.  All in all, it shows us that there is more at stake than just their innocence in the face of the law when it comes to this trial.  It’s about whether or not this trial is going to imprison their voices as well.

It is amazing how long it actually took for this movie to get made, and how it’s eventual timing proved to be more spot on than perhaps anyone realized.  Aaron Sorkin certainly hasn’t been hurting for success since he wrote his first draft for The Trail of the Chicago 7 back in the aughts.  He won an Academy Award for his monumental screenplay for The Social Network (2010), was nominated for another for Moneyball (2011), and even went on to direct his first feature, Molly’s Game (2017).  Having gotten that first directorial effort out of the way was probably the best thing for Sorkin to finally make Chicago 7 a reality, because it gave him the confidence to tackle a story with as much weight as this one, with all the lessons learned about how to actually do it properly.  When some writers move into directing, it can often lead to mixed results, as some writers grow too attached to their writing and leave too much in.  That was honestly the one problem with Molly’s Game as a film; Sorkin’s reluctance to trim stuff down and streamline the plot, thereby leaving the film bloated.  Given that Chicago 7 had been passed around between several different directors before, all helping him to parse the story down to all the essentials, it helped to give Sorkin the much needed fine tuning that the script called for before he could start rolling camera.  All Sorkin needed to do as a director was not mess it up, and thankfully he didn’t.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a major step up for the legendary writer turned director, and it proves that he is now as much of a force behind the camera as he is in drafting a screenplay.  And to be very honest, it’s probably a good thing that this movie waited for the moment when Sorkin himself could step into that role, because I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would’ve fulfilled what the script needed.

There’s no doubt about it upon watching this film; this is a Sorkin movie through and through.  Aaron Sorkin is one of those rare screenwriters today whose rhythm in dialogue is instantly recognizable.  The only other writers who I would say come close to having that stature would be either Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Charlie Kaufman.  What sets Sorkin apart is the rapid fire nature of his writing.  The man is exceptionally good at writing back and forth arguments between his characters, which does fit perfectly in a courtroom setting.  If anything, it’s the screenwriting in this movie that is the main attraction.  Like with Social Network and many of his other standout screenplays throughout his career, Sorkin balances back and forth between so many different tones in his writing, and does so with incredible finesse.  Within the span of a couple minutes, he could have as many as five different characters shouting off, delivering anything from important facts to non-sequiturs, to flagrant insults, to even just a bad joke.  The incredible way he writes is that so many elements come at you from so many directions, and yet it all manages to hit the mark.  Court room dramas can often drift into the mundane, but Sorkin manages to engage the viewer through every moment, making sure you hang on every word, even if it’s just a throw-away punchline.  Given that he’s working with a narrative focused on 7 different individuals, and the people surrounding them, and that he has to make them all distinctive from one another, and make the weight of their moment in time relevant to the viewer, Aaron Sorkin is certainly putting together what may be his most complex film yet.  And the end result is an exceptional achievement not only in measured direction, but also in complex story-telling.  Sorkin could have been a show off here, which he sometimes can be (especially in his television shows), but with Chicago 7, he displays a level of maturity as a filmmaker that rises to the challenge of his own distinctive writing.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s put together a stellar cast as well.  There were so many big names that have circled their wagons around this project, including the previously mentioned Ledger.  Will Smith, Seth Rogan, William Hurt,  and Jonathan Majors were all at some points attach to this film, before the delays began to change plans.  The cast that did end up in the movie all do their jobs very well, especially those in the courtroom itself.  The role of Tom Hayden is a nice departure for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who manages to hide his British accent surprisingly well in the role.  He’s also the character who experiences the most growth through the movie, which he handles pretty well.  Sacha Baron Cohen of course gets the flashiest role in the movie as Abbie Hoffman, and while I do think he perfectly captured the cadence of the notorious Yippie leader, he doesn’t quite master the American accent as well as Redmayne, often letting his British accent slip a couple times.  Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deliver solid supporting performances throughout the movie.  However, the two stand outs that I think steal the movie away from the others are Yahya Abdul Mateen and Frank Langella as Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman respectively.  Mateen’s Seale is an exceptional characterization that really underlines the frustration of African American people who are unfairly treated by the Justice system, and his performance really captures that passionate defiance in a compelling way.  On the opposite end, Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a perfect portrayal of a dispassionate judge who is completely out of his element proceeding over a trial of this nature.  His judge Hoffman in the end makes an effect antagonistic representation of the forces working against the 7 and the futility of the system trying to use the courtroom as a means of controlling speech.  There’s no doubt that Sorkin could find plenty of eager actors willing to bring his words to life.  It’s just fortunate that each and every one fills their respective roles to perfection.

It’s also interesting that Sorkin, for the first time, is working entirely within a different period.  Social Network, Moneyball, and Molly’s Game were all recent history, torn from the headlines.  Here, Sorkin is working in a time period dating over 50 years ago.  In doing so, he has to work his dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel out of step with the time period, and thankfully it doesn’t.  You do buy into this being a flash of time within the late 1960’s, when Vietnam was still raging and political upheaval was happening all around.  I think it says more about our time that so much of this movie feels so current to today.  What I like best about what Sorkin has done here as a director is the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much as a director.  He lets the screenplay and the performances carry the film, and just lets the camera observe.  If the movie had been done by a different director, I think a lot of Sorkin’s rhythm would have been lost in translation.  Spielberg would have gotten good performances to be sure, but he might have been too manipulative as well, if he tried to underscore several scenes with a sweeping John Williams crescendo.  And Paul Greengrass would’ve had the camera shaking needlessly with his hand held style.  Sorkin on the other hand just holds the camera steady and uses the power of editing to match the rhythm of his words.  The movie is devoid of big, operatic moments, and instead just allows the scenes to flow naturally.  I especially like how the flash backs are used in conjunction with what is said in court.  He’s used this technique before in movies like Steve Jobs (2015), Social Network, and even going as far back as his script for A Few Good Men (1992).  There’s a fantastic scene late in the film when Eddie Redmayne is cross-examined with a tape recording being used as evidence, and it intercuts with the incident in question, and it’s edited together in a perfectly tuned way to rev up the tension of the moment.  Like I said, over the course of writing so many films, and having already directed a feature before, The Trial of the Chicago 7 marks a bold step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a force in the director’s chair.

With the way the world is right now, there definitely needs to be a film that puts history and it’s effect on the present into perspective, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly what we need right now.  It is a important reminder of where we have been as a nation, and how some problems go unsolved and end up repeating themselves over time.  In the trial of the Chicago 7, America saw for the first time people put on public trail not for the crimes that they committed, but for the threat that their message could mean to the establishment.  Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale were put on trial for what Hoffman described as “their thoughts’ which were deemed dangerous by the then Nixon Administration.  But the attempt to silence the Chicago 7 only added to their legend and their act of defiance through their activism and trial still inspires activists to this very day.  As we face a pivotal election day in the middle of a still raging pandemic, the stakes could not be made more clear about where we stand as a nation, and the example of the Chicago 7 feels more relevant than ever.  In the end, it probably was for the best that Aaron Sorkin’s re-telling of the Chicago 7 trial took this long to  become a reality, because it eventually came out at the most important time that it could.  We are at yet another tipping point in our nations history, where the rights of citizens from every walk of life is at stake in this election, as are the fundamental pillars of our democracy.  The real gift of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it reminds us of the fact that it is hard to kill an idea, and that people will always fight for the things that they value.  We have been in this position before, and though finding justice is hard, it will always in some way find a way to become a reality.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for our freedoms; let’s not make their sacrifice go in vain, and continue the fight for the things that we value.

Rating: 9/10