INTERVIEW. Director Morten Henriksen was just 10 years old when his father first involved him in his close personal relationship with the world-famous author Karen Blixen, also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen. "Karen Blixen – Behind Her Mask" is a dark, auto-therapeutic interview with the director's father, Aage Henriksen, a literature professor who suffered from life-long migraines after Blixen put her 'mark' on him.
Aage Henriksen had long since dropped out of touch with the much older Danish writer Karen Blixen, when she called him up one Sunday afternoon in 1958. For more than five years, he, like a number of other male Danish literati of his generation, had enjoyed a close, almost spiritual, relationship with the Danish author, who was 35 years his senior.
Sick and pale, weighing just 35 kilos, she was a feeble and dying old lady. But to Aage Henriksen, she looked just like the wolf in grandma's bed.
Ultimately, she had become so demanding and manipulative that he cut all ties to her. But now she was on her deathbed, she told him, and if he wanted to see her one last time, this was it.
Arriving at Rungstedlund, he found her laid up in bed. Sick and pale, weighing just 35 kilos, she was a feeble and dying old lady. But to Aage Henriksen, she looked just like the wolf in grandma's bed. Her face had a scarlet glow and a bright spot of light was flickering within the field. That's how Aage Henriksen saw it.
He sat on her bed and they talked in their old way about literature and her worlds, but within a few hours an odd silence crept up on them. They sat like that for a while, staring at each other, then Blixen broke the silence with a "Come on!". Not knowing exactly what was going to happen, he leaned towards her and she gripped his neck with her long, white fingers, digging one finger so hard into his nape that a burning pain shot down his spine and his whole lower body cramped up. He wanted to say something, but she just asked him to leave.
Damaged for Life
"She dislocated a vertebra in my neck," Aage Henriksen says more than 50 years later in 'Karen Blixen – Behind Her Mask', "and no chiropractor has been able to put it back since."
Blixen's mark begat chronic migraine attacks for Aage Henriksen that were a huge strain on the whole family, Morten Henriksen says today. For five years he has been working on this documentary about his father's relationship to Blixen.
"It disabled him. He would be in terrible pain for weeks and his head would be nodding like a bobble-head doll," Henriksen says.
"My mother never forgave Blixen for her relationship with my father. But I, who had become a part of it and wanted to understand, had to forgive her. That's why it was so important for me to make this film. To understand my father and free myself from him."
The film is a dark, auto-therapeutic interview with Aage Henriksen who tries to describe his deep personal relationship with the famous writer. How she came to mean so much to him and why he made his 10-year-old son his sole confidante.
"It's only now, when the film is finished and I have finally had a chance to question all the seams in the story," Henriksen says. "It was hugely liberating for me to be able to map this thing out, examining my dad at arm’s length. I can hold up their relationship as a story now and that has demystified a lot of my memories. Also, I felt that I had some rights to this story, even if my father doesn't agree at all."
A Pact with the Devil
Blixen first sent for Aage Henriksen in the early 1950s. A young associate professor of literature at Lund University
in Sweden, he had written about Blixen's work and she asked him up to Rungstedlund. Deeply fascinated by the world-famous author, Aage Henriksen went to see her and they developed a close and confidential relationship. One day, when they were sitting on the veranda, this confidence took a turn for the unexpected.
"She looked at me and said, 'I am going to tell you something now that you cannot tell a soul,'" Aage Henriksen recalls in the film.
She told him that she had become ill in Africa and after travelling to Paris she was told that she was dying from syphilis. Blixen was whisked off to a hospital in Copenhagen and installed in a ward for tropical diseases, so no one would know the true nature of her condition. There she lay, all alone and lonesome, she told Aage Henriksen. Then one day it was like the air in the room thickened and she realized that she wasn't alone. The Devil was with her, she asserted, and ever since the Devil has been her best friend.
The Devil took away her sex life, but he gave her the ability to transform her life and her experiences into stories. She had made a pact, she said.
The Chosen One
"He who is told something for the first time that he can't tell anyone else feels chosen," Aage Henriksen says in the film. As he was drawn deeper and deeper into Blixen's occult universe, he too became increasingly obsessed with spirituality and magic.
He experienced supernatural phenomena, sought out spiritual milieus and cultivated mythic figures and Eastern mysticism. As Blixen confided in Aage Henriksen, so he confided to his son the secrets Blixen had told him. On long walks, he would talk to the boy about devil worship, moon dancing, faces aglow with infinite light, sexual powers and the strange clarity of vision he had gained by practicing yoga and opening up the so-called kundalini force at the bottom of the spine. All with emphatic admonitions not to tell anyone.
The stories Henriksen is probing in his film now have lain untouched since he was a child.
The Guilt of Complicity
As a child, Henriksen likewise thought of himself as his father's chosen one. Their relationship was special and it was he, not anyone else, who got to hear the stories about Blixen. Making the film has given him a more sober image of his relationship to his father. "My mother didn't want to hear about Karen Blixen and my father didn't want to look like a madman in front of his friends. So it was probably less threatening and less compromising to tell these things to a child. His need and my curiosity came together."
Were you ever angry that he confided these things in you?
"Not because of what he confided in me. I did feel a kind of guilt of complicity, and I had no problem keeping mum. It was a bit like moving between different rooms. Of course, I was carrying some thoughts that weren’t my own. But I also used to ask my dad a lot of questions about these things."
There is a point in the film where Aage Henriksen comes close to apologising to his son. Regret at probably having drawn his son too far into his relationship with the famous writer and at the inappropriateness of letting a child carry such secrets alone. But Henriksen was never looking for an apology.
"I think it was good to get all of this sorted out, and it has certainly demystified a few things for me. I now understand that it was all about him and Blixen, not me."
Do you understand him?
"It's hard to say. I was probably surprised at the radical decisions he made. He tells me several times over that he can never go back. Still, I'm surprised at the size of the losses he was ready to suffer and how much he was willing to sacrifice in favour of what he was doing with Blixen."
A longer version of this article appeared in the Danish daily Information.