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The Devil’s Circus (Benjamin Christensen, 1926)


    In the very first shot of Benjamin Christensen’s silent film The Devil’s Circus, a gloating Satan-as-puppeteer is shown as the words “When the devil pulls his strings all of the world must dance.” appear on screen. After a warning like that, it’s no surprise to find that the film that follows is an excursion into deeply melodramatic territory. The action begins in 1913, where our hero Carl (Charles Emmett Mack) is released from prison, where he served a sentence for stealing. Spurned by his circumstance, Carl rejects God and resumes his fast life of crime. Before long, however, his fate intersects with that of Mary, a devout orphan (played by Norma Shearer, with her future screen persona already intact), prompting a romance and a reevaluation.


    The first half of The Devil’s Circus mines tension from the menace of Mary’s physical and moral corruption. The threat of rape looms large throughout Carl & Mary’s extended meet-cute, making the film gripping even as it’s superficially interested in dog tricks and puppy love. From the early moment where she is goaded into her first sip of wine and says, “I don’t like it,” to the later, repeated attempts that men make to force themselves upon her, Mary’s virginity, and pious nature by proxy, are at stake. When Mary finds work, and another suitor, in the circus, the friction only further increases. At this point, the movie begins to complicate its seemingly simple setup. Carl, swayed by his good fortune and Mary’s purity, begins to find belief in God. Mary, through circumstances of her own, begins to move along the opposite track, finding her faith ebbing as conditions grow increasingly dire. By showing us characters that fail when their faith is tested and then flip-flop when their fortunes are reversed, Christensen seems to be wryly commenting on the way we dramatize our own lives. These characters, like anyone we know, are driven by ego. We each tend to perceive some sort of God in coincidence, bestowing notions of fate and divine intervention upon the twists that our life throws at us. The twists and turns of the plot in The Devil’s Circus do indeed feel as if they’re being dictated specifically to demonstrate the characters’ fallibility, making the opening shot seem all the more appropriate and the closing one all the more questionable. To unthinkingly accept this narrative’s framework, after all, is to feel that the horrors of World War I unfolded specifically to derail this young couple!




Jeremy Heilman