The term “witch hunt” (or its variants) has an unhappy history. It first appears in the English language in the early 17th century. Unlike its modern usage, it then referred quite literally to hunting those who practiced the dark arts. The Salem Witch Trials were the typical outcome of such hunts, where people were brutalized and killed on the basis of rumors and gossip.
You might reasonably think this a thing of the distant past like bloodletting and jousting, but it isn’t. I was recently reading an African news website that reported the stoning of a woman in northern Nigeria because the people in her village believed her to be a witch. Perhaps you’re thinking, well, that’s in a Third World country. Voodoo, primitive cults, and cannibals! Thankfully, we are so much more civilized in societies where we order lunch with an app and our coffee is prepared in shiny sophisticated machinery and delivered to us by people called baristas.
Don’t be so sure.
Recently I sat down to watch the Danish film The Hunt in the hopes of finding a couple of hours of entertainment to distract me from life’s duties. This was definitely the wrong movie for that. What I instead found was a jarring and all-too-true-to-life story of how we conduct witch hunts in modern civilized societies. I meant this to be a short review of the film, but before I knew it, I had written an article. This is easily justified, however, because this film, accurate as it is in its portrayal of the times in which we live and rightly cynical in its depiction of human nature, deserves serious reflection and discussion both for its societal implications and the larger theological ones which reinforce them.
The film stars Mads Mikkelsen, who is best known to American audiences for his role as the baddie Le Chiffre in the Bond blockbuster Casino Royale. His role here, however, is decidedly different. Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a man living in a small Danish town and in the midst of rebuilding his life after a series of setbacks. We see him warts and all. He has recently lost his job as a secondary school teacher, and because he needs something to pay the bills, he has accepted a position at the local kindergarten. He’s going through a messy divorce with a wife who is ready to leverage any flaw or hint of instability to prevent him from having custody rights with their young son. But his life is trending upward. He has started a new relationship with a woman who seems to love him. He enjoys deer hunting with his longtime buddies and alcohol-fueled parties on the weekends. And, for all of his imperfections and the difficulties that he faces, Lucas isn’t complaining. The director of this film wants us to like Lucas, and we do. He is a warmhearted, decent man who is popular with those who know him, none more than the children at the kindergarten.
And that is what makes what follows so disturbing. All the more so because it rings true with the more despicable aspects of our fallen natures.
Klara, a little girl at the kindergarten and daughter to Theo, Lucas’s best friend from childhood, has an innocent crush on Lucas. During playtime while Lucas is wrestling with the children on the floor, Klara attempts to plant a romantic kiss on the object of her affection. Lucas pulls her aside and tells her that it is inappropriate to do such things. The rebuke is gentle and, in Lucas’s mind, the matter is forgotten. But not for Klara.
Klara, angry at Lucas’s rejection, tells Grethe, another worker at the kindergarten, that he exposed himself to her. She draws descriptive power from pornographic images she has seen on her brother’s iPad. With this little lie Klara sets in motion a series of events that will have devastating consequences for Lucas and everyone involved. The school immediately enacts protocols for such things: counselors are summoned to talk to Klara and manage the situation. The school calls a meeting of all parents and faculty to “inform” them of the problem. Administrators begin interviewing other children to see if the “abuse” included them, too.
Initially, Lucas is not terribly concerned. Naïve, he is confident that his friends and colleagues will see this for what it is: the overactive imagination of a little girl. Don’t they know from their own experiences with him that he is a decent fellow? His relationships with them go back years and even decades. But we sense what Lucas does not: that his confidence in his friends, colleagues, and the truth is unwarranted. We sense that this is the end of Lucas’s life as he knows it.
The motif of deer hunting, a popular pastime in this village, becomes a metaphor, cluing us in to the savagery of humanity whose civility is but a veneer, disguising the beast within us all. Lucas’s friends, colleagues, and soon the entire community hunts Lucas, destroying his life and world piecemeal. His reputation and his relationships are the first casualties. His friends shun him. We can see that the social isolation, deliberate and ruthless, is slowly driving him to despair. But there is no compassion for Lucas, no mercy.
Moreover, any attempt on his part to talk to his friends is rejected with hostility and even violence. He loses his job without any opportunity to defend himself. Police investigate. Children, unwittingly coached by parents and counselors, conjure false memories of a teacher whose behavior toward them was unnatural. His ex-wife is clearly planning to use the incident to win complete custody of their child. His girlfriend, influenced by the steady drip of local gossip, begins to fear that he may be a predator after all and disassociates herself from him. Lucas’s life, idiosyncrasies, and activities are all reinterpreted in the light of this “revelation” and are used to implicate him. Didn’t Lucas walk Klara home from school every day? Didn’t he drink too much? Didn’t he have a fling with his colleague at the school? All of these things are now painted in dark hues, and lines are drawn between dots that don’t connect to create the most sinister of narratives. Helpless to defend himself, Lucas is pushed, bit by bit, to the point of utter and complete desperation, and his desperate acts are taken as further evidence that he is an unstable man. Our horror is compounded by the fact that this isn’t a did he? or didn’t he? movie mystery. We, the viewers, know that Lucas is innocent.
I mentioned theological implications. Chief among them is that Lucas’s guilt is assumed because children are assumed to be innocent and incapable of authoring monstrous lies. This secular fiction flies in the face of biblical truth. Our sin natures are not acquired from the environments in which we are raised. As Psalm 58:3 tells us, we are born speaking lies. But in this film, the assumed innocence of children is at the bottom of every action taken by parents, counselors, school authorities, and the whole community against Lucas.
That said, Klara is not portrayed as a Regan or a Damien, one of those famously evil children of classic Hollywood horror. The director wants us to like her, too, and we do. She is a typical little girl who has told the sort of lie that children tell their parents and playmates every day. The only difference is the consequences, and Klara, who loves and admires Lucas, is increasingly alarmed as the grown-ups in her world mobilize to destroy him. With events spiraling out of control, Klara, demonstrating extraordinary courage and character, attempts to tell her parents and counselors the truth:
“I lied. I was mad at Lucas.”
As a viewer, you desperately hope that this is the beginning of the end of Lucas’s nightmare and that things in this idyllic little village with its usually happy people will return to normal. We want that. Emotionally, we need that. But it isn’t the end and they don’t return to normal. Instead, counselors, programmed by their own training, assume that Klara has suffered trauma that is causing her to suppress memories of her abuse. Thus, parents and teachers ignore her pleas to stop what they are doing. Those stalking Lucas the way they might stalk a deer, press on in the certainty of his guilt and of the righteousness of their pursuit.
For me, the most powerful scene occurs toward the end of the film. The community is gathered at the local Evangelical Lutheran Church for the Christmas Eve service. To everyone’s surprise and discomfort, Lucas appears as the service is beginning. The place is full. Disheveled, he makes his way to a pew. The lone occupant of it, a woman, moves before he can sit down, leaving him embarrassingly alone. He looks like a man at the end of his rope. He is. He begins to sob, his whole body convulsing. With eyes filled with tears, he turns to look at his former friends who sit behind him whispering to one another. They try to ignore his gaze just as they have ignored him since this whole awful episode began, but he refuses to be dismissed. What follows is powerful and heartrending.
What is striking to me as a Christian is the fact that this is a secular Danish film, and yet the director has nonetheless seamlessly woven prayers, hymns, and congregational recitations into this scene. Since I don’t understand Danish, I watched the movie with subtitles, so the words of the opening prayer were hard to ignore. The prayer is read by Grethe, the colleague who initiated the investigation against Lucas and who has refused talk to him ever since:
Lord, I have come into this Your house to hear what You would say to me, God the Father, my Creator, You, Lord Jesus, my Savior, You, good Holy Spirit in life and death, my Comforter. Lord, open now my heart by Your Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ, so that I may learn from Your word to repent of my sins and believe in life and death in Jesus, and every day to grow in holy life and living. Hear me and grant this, O God, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
But these words are like so much water off of a duck. Congregants sit in smug self-assurance that they are the saved and Lucas the damned. The director is cleverly contrasting the behavior of Lucas’s friends and that of the broader community, whose whisperings are part of the ongoing effort to bring further ruin upon him, against the Christian principles their presence in this church implies they believe. As a Christian watching this story unfold, you almost expect to discover that it has all been engineered by an Uncle Screwtape or Satan himself.
And this brings me to the next theological implication of this film. Have you ever wondered why the Bible takes such a dim view of gossip? Take Psalm 101:5 for example:
“Whoever slanders his neighbors secretly, him will I destroy.”
How about Titus 3:10-11:
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
There are many more verses to go along with these. So I ask the question again: why does the Bible so strongly condemn gossip? As sins go, we tend to categorize it as a relatively minor offense. That is because people generally see gossip as harmless and even as a benign form of entertainment.
But to engage in gossip is to do violence against a person’s spirit and name. Beyond harming the individual in a manner no less lethal than stoning a Nigerian woman in the streets – and probably less merciful – the secondary casualty of gossip and rumor is the community as a whole. The Hunt is a chilling cautionary tale of how our words have power, especially when the words are malicious and are coupled with our other sinful inclinations, in this case cynicism and suspicion. This is because truth is powerless against lies, innuendo, and false narratives that people are determined to believe.
In a surprisingly insightful review of The Hunt, The Hollywood Reporter says:
The film is fundamentally about the speed at which lies, gossip and innuendo can become cemented as fact in public opinion, and about the disturbing power of suggestion on young minds. But it’s also about the fragile nature of trust in communities and among friends, particularly men. It shows how easily masculine bonds stretching back years can be broken and how willingly a band of brothers can betray one of its own.
The speed at which lies become cemented as fact. The fragile nature of trust in communities and among friends. How willingly a band of brothers can betray its own. My, how true. An unspoken (and unanswered) question in the film is why many people are prepared to believe the worst, even of their friends, and act on it with breathtaking viciousness. Is it a self-protective instinct? Is it because some determine the right or wrong of a given situation, not by an absolute standard, but by the current direction the winds of gossip are blowing? Maybe. But I think there is a deeper force driving it.
In recent years, I have come to the conclusion that there is no greater evil than self-righteousness. Hell will be full of self-righteous people because such people never really repent of anything. Self-righteousness is pride masquerading as religious observance of the rules by which one has chosen to live and judge himself. “I am good because I do ________.” You don’t need to be religious to be self-righteous. Your rules can be derived from socialism or feminism or patriotism just as easily as they can be deduced from a religious text. I have seen recycling Nazis accost boys because they put plastic in the paper bin. That’s self-righteous.
I say it is the greatest of all evils because seldom do people commit evil acts believing them to be evil acts. On the contrary, they do them with an inner conviction that they are good people who are morally justified in doing what they do. The evilest acts in history were of the self-righteous variety: slave traders and owners made dubious use of scripture to pacify their consciences; the Spanish Inquisition insisted they acted on God’s behalf; and the Holocaust was carried out by men and women who believed they were justified by science, history, and the greater good of humanity.
But it’s not just continental-sized evil that self-righteousness fuels; it fuels everyday evil, too. It is self-righteousness that leads us to attack our neighbors with malicious gossip, to give ear to rumor, to withhold forgiveness, and to offer no mercy. So evil are we as a race, and grace so contrary to our makeup, that grace stands out like the brightest star in the blackest night when at last we encounter it. Unfortunately, Lucas never catches even a glimpse of grace’s light.
As The Hunt is drawing to a close, Klara’s father sits at her bedside. He weeps and tries to comfort her for something that never happened to her in the first place and says:
“There is so much evil in the world. But if we hold onto each other, it will go away.”
Of course, this is pure fantasy. Evil doesn’t just “go away.” Moreover, evil is innate to the human condition. We carry it with us as if it were in our genes. And in this case, the evil, we know, is not Lucas’s. It is the evil of a community that simply will not believe that Lucas really was just being kind in walking Klara home or that he really hasn’t done anything deserving of their hatred.
Again, Klara tries to reverse the damage: “Dad, I said something stupid. Lucas didn’t do anything.”
But her father isn’t listening. He simply gives her a wan, vacant smile.
The hunt will go on.
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