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Die Hexen von Salem - The Crucible

1957, b/w, 116 min. Feature
Dir.: Raymond Rouleau
Script: Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller
Camera: Claude Renoir
Music: Georges Auric, Hanns Eisler
Cast: Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Mylène Demongeot
VHS-NTSC, English subtitles, no rental at this time


Les Sorcières de Salem/Die Hexen von Salem was the second of four DEFA films made in collaboration with French film companies.  The film, based on the Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, explores the Salem witch trials of 1692, as seen primarily by John Proctor, whose flirtations with Abigail Williams and disillusionment with the church lead to the hysteria that engulfs the village.  The play opened in January 1953, to which people reacted with hostility, but after some rewrites, the play became a critical success.  Written as a veiled commentary on the McCarthy ‘witch-hunt’ for Communists, the play explores how fear and hatred can lead to total hysteria.  Arthur Miller was a renowned playwright, best known for his works Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, who developed a reputation for refusing to succumb to McCarthyism.  Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, and a writer whose works include La Nausée (1938) and No Exit (1944).

The film opens with an interesting panning shot of several men striding along the beach on horseback, which makes the atmosphere dark and cold, setting the scene for the events to come.  The protagonist, John Proctor, played by the French actor Yves Montand, has been having an affair with 17-year-old Abigail Williams, strikingly well-played by Mylène Demongeot.  Proctor’s cold and distant wife, Elizabeth, portrayed in a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA)-winning performance by Simone Signoret (Silberman, 34), disapproves of this, and tells her husband that he must get rid of Abigail.  Seeking revenge, Abigail organizes a witch dance in the woods, which Elizabeth attends, so Abigail can blame her for witchcraft.  Mass hysteria takes over Salem, and Abigail gets more than she bargained for.

Stifling religious authority and its effect on society is a major theme in the film and in the play.  While Salem at large is a deeply religious community, Proctor feels disillusioned with the church authorities.  He works on Sundays, and is angered by the negative way that religion is preached in Salem.  Proctor dislikes Reverend Parris because of his greediness, and feels he preaches primarily for the money.  Religion influences every aspect of society; even the minutiae of daily life in Puritan society are repressive, as demonstrated when Elizabeth scolds her daughter for playing with a doll on Sunday.

When people are accused of witchcraft in both the play and the film, they are put on trial.  Once Proctor denounces Abigail, he is sentenced to die, because the judges think he is lying about not having an affair with Abigail; the only way he can be accepted back into society is to give names of others who might be witches.  Proctor prides himself on being an upstanding individual however, and, because of this, loses everything.  He refuses to conform to save himself.  This is probably the strongest parallel to the McCarthy hearings.

During the late 1940s, Communism was on the rise in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.  In America, fear and hatred of Communism was epidemic.  Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) were cracking down on Communists in America, conducting a so-called ‘witch hunt.’  They accused many people of being Communists, from Hollywood stars to ordinary citizens.

During the HUAC hearings, defendants were required to give out names of those who might be involved in Communist activities, because McCarthy and his supporters thought there was a mass anti-American conspiracy.  In an article that Miller later wrote, titled “Are You Now or Were You Ever?” which was published on June 17, 2000 in The Guardian, he stated that he saw the naming of names as a “ritual of humiliation” and a breaking of pride (Miller).  Although Miller was not officially a Communist, he was still a target of McCarthy.  Miller was a close associate of Elia Kazan, who directed Death of a Salesman and who, with Miller, had attended two Communist writer’s meetings many years before the hearings.  Kazan named others before the House Un-American Activities Committee; but Miller refused to let his personal liberty collapse before HUAC by naming names.  The role Proctor plays in both Miller and Sartre’s versions of The Crucible reflects this power of an individual to resist society’s pressure to conform.

The play clearly has major political implications and acts as a metaphor for McCarthyism.  In contrast in the film, however, Sartre has emphasized the human element of the story, underscoring the themes of love and jealousy.  The events that set the story in motion differ between the film and the play.  In the play the plot is set in motion through the discovery by Reverend Parris of Abigail’s ritual dancing with Tituba, which was misinterpreted as witchcraft.  Sartre’s screenplay, however, relies on Abigail’s vengeance to carry the plot: when Elizabeth finds out about Proctor’s infidelity, Abigail vows revenge, and organizes the dance in the woods.  Sartre made the repression of sexuality in Puritan society the central theme of the story.

The ending of the film also differs from that of the play.  In the play, Elizabeth supports Proctor in his resistance to signing the confession and naming names.  In the film, Elizabeth comes to the gallows to visit her husband just before he is hung.  Despite her portrayal as a cold and distant person, she appears to have softened when she is with Proctor for the last time.  In Sartre’s version, she tries to get him to sign the confession, telling him that the hysteria is all her fault; she still loves him and doesn’t want any part of heaven without him.  In spite of her pleas, he refuses to sign the confession.  After Proctor has been hung, the townspeople want Abigail executed, realizing that she is the one who made up the story that caused all the hysteria.  Elizabeth, however, acknowledges that she and all of Salem are at fault, saying “I, too, killed Proctor, and so did you, and you.”  She then defends Abigail, saying, “Let her go.  She loved him.”  Sartre thus gives us not only a story of a repressive society but also a story about forbidden love and altruism.  While the ending of the play is more open-ended, leaving the audience wondering about the fate of the characters, the film ties the loose ends together, with a conclusive Hollywood ending in which Proctor’s heroic death makes him tantamount to a socialist martyr.

--Eric Cochrane
Keene State College


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