Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hævnens Nat / [The Night of Revenge]

Blind Justice (Dansk Biografkompagni, DK 1915) D: Benjamin Christensen; cast: Karen Sandberg, Benjamin Christensen, Peter Fjelstrup, Fritz Lamprecht, Jon Iversen; 35 mm, 1938 m, 106 min (16 fps); from: Det Danske Filminstitut, København. Vintage English art intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (GCM) with e-subtitles in Italian and Philip C. Carli on the grand piano, 7 Oct 2010.

Kristin Thompson in the GCM Catagogue: "In the 1970s, when I was studying film in graduate school, Benjamin Christensen was known in the U.S. primarily through an abridged print of his 1922 quasi-documentary, Häxan. Although his first two films, Det Hemmelighesdsfulde X (1913) and Hævnens Nat, have long been considered classics in Denmark, until recently they have been little seen elsewhere. In 1976, when I watched Hævnens Nat at Det Danske Filminstitut, it felt like a genuine discovery."

"In the decades since then, the exploration of the little-known territory of the 1910s has progressed considerably, and it is still yielding its treasures. Thanks to festivals like the Giornate del Cinema Muto and the diligent work of archival restoration, such figures as Georg af Klercker, Yevgenii Bauer, Albert Capellani, and Franz Hofer have emerged as major auteurs, while the careers of such towering filmmakers as Cecil B. De Mille, Louis Feuillade, and Victor Sjöström have been revealed as deeper and more varied. In the wake of such discoveries, Christensen’s work does not seem quite so anomalous for the period, and he takes his place as one of several major directors of the 1910s who were turning film into an art form."

"The first third of Hævnens Nat is an extraordinarily powerful stretch of filmmaking. The simple situation of an isolated country house invaded by an apparent murderer on New Year’s Eve is sustained for nearly half an hour, giving an impression of nearly continuous action. Surely no filmmaker of the era managed to shoot so extensively and effectively in low light. Only a year after De Mille created a stir with the few low-key shots in The Cheat and other films, Christensen filled most of a nearly 30-minute segment with such lighting. Strongman John’s exploration of the darkened house involves several rooms lit strongly from one direction through doors and windows. His descent of a stairway as he seeks milk for his baby provides an unusually convincing depiction of a flashlight. Throughout the film, Christensen draws extensively on newly available “practical” lighting equipment, whereby arc lights disguised as ordinary-looking table lamps can illuminate an entire shot."

"The drama of the opening third rapidly manages to establish audience sympathy with both John and the youthful, idealistic Ann as she decides to trust and help him. After her uncle forces Ann to betray John, his vow of revenge against her seems to set up a strong impetus for the remaining action. Almost inevitably, however, the singular tension of the opening section cannot be sustained. The film’s second portion consists mainly of exposition of a very different situation."

"A gap of 15 years occurs, during which John’s physical and mental health deteriorate in prison, and he forgets his vow and the events that led up to it. The same time lapse has seen Ann married to a wealthy doctor. They have two children – including John’s son, whom the couple adopted shortly after John’s imprisonment."

"Not until the final, climactic third portion does the suspense builds again. John unwittingly joins a gang of thieves, and their loot from the doctor’s town house spurs John to remember Ann’s apparent betrayal and his vow, and he sets out to the country house to murder her during the “night of revenge” of the film’s title."

"Throughout the film, Christensen’s attention to set design and lighting is outstanding for the period. They function especially to create parallels between the scenes of invasion and threat in the opening and closing portions. The opening’s dramatic night lighting, abandoned in the film’s central portion, returns in the climax. The layout of rooms in the couple’s country home strongly recalls those of the uncle’s estate in the opening, to the point where at least one commentator has said that the two scenes take place in the same house. (Christensen stresses the importance of the houses’ layout by opening the film with a revolving model of the uncle’s home, lit from within.) The L-shaped staircases leading to the upper left of the frame are similar, though the first is lined with hangings of armor and weapons, while the second is partially walled by a great stretch of glass windows, stressing the vulnerability of Ann and her child, alone in the house. Similarly, the bedroom of the opening scene, where Ann had locked a door at the right of the frame, is echoed in the climax, where she does much the same thing."

"Watching the film again, I was struck by how much emphasis it puts on implied sound, especially characters listening to offscreen sound. In the opening scene, the revelers lift their champagne glasses and await the stroke of midnight. A cut to a clock outdoors holds the shot long enough for the musical accompaniment to marks the tolling bell, and even after the cut back indoors, the group waits unmoving for a few more seconds before drinking their toast."

"The moment prepares the way for the many scenes when characters listening to potentially threatening noises create tension. Visuals and implied sound create systematic parallels between the opening and closing nights. Overall, despite the loss of dramatic energy in the central portion, the film displays a director with a tremendous feel for both the visual and even the sonic qualities of the new art form." – KRISTIN THOMPSON

AA: I saw Hævnens nat for the first time thanks to the The Canon Revisited project. It really is a remarkable work full of visual power. I am also grateful having got to see this beautiful print from a vintage English-language source material with its stylish art titles. I agree with Kristin on the extraordinary power of the opening thirty minutes. But there is also much to like in the middle section of the film. The plot of this thriller is absurdly dependent on improbable coincidences, but there are many visual inventions to admire all through the picture. The acting is intense but restrained. Benjamin Christensen himself in the role of Strong John is impressive including in his interpretation of the profound change he experiences during his 15 years in prison, falsely convicted of murder.

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