Sewer systems represent the intersection of high and low, clean and unclean, where the human spirit is reduced to its bodily functions, and where everything is both poisoned and purged – which is what makes them such an evocative setting in films ranging from Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957), Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973), Jesse Thomas Cook’s Septic Man (2013) and Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament (2014). Likewise writer/director Anders Elsrud Hultgreen’s short film Septichexen is set – and was shot – in the sewerage beneath Bergen, Norway, making it, literally as well as figuratively, an underground film.
It also, as its compound title implies, delves deep into a place where grounded grime meets the mythic and the occult. For as a microbiologist (Susann Bugge Kambestad) travels through these tunnels testing samples and seeking the source of a toxic leak into the city’s drinking water supply, she will have a mystic encounter with a witch-like woman (played variously by Roskva Yasmin Andersen and Brita Grov). Like the toilet gods of old, except altogether less sanitary, salutary or amenable to propitiation, this witch of the waste embodies the filthy, the hidden and the contaminated – and as her words are uttered for her by the now intoxicated and possessed microbiologist, it is quite possible that the witch is just a figment of the microbiologist’s madness, left to fester in this gloomy locus of the repressed – or perhaps this scientist, who has removed her gas mask, might just be succumbing to the effect of the ambient fumes.
While Septichexen shares with Hultgreen’s previous short Hospital Dumpster Divers (2020) a preoccupation with squalor, putrescence and infection, its serious tone, apocalyptic mood and cosmic themes make it more akin to his earlier features Dawn (Morgenrøde, 2014) and Devonian Fever Trip (2019). Hultgreen’s dripping, clanging sound design, the unnatural lighting that he creates with fellow cinematographer Thomas Dalen (all steely blues, sickly yellows, glowing pinks and luminous, numinous whites) and Hilde Annine Hasselberg’s subdued score combine to ensure that Septichexen oozes with icky, infernal atmosphere.
“Down here,” as the witch says, “you no longer belong to the human world.” Indeed as the microbiologist – a woman of science and reason – turns into an unwitting, addled ecoterrorist, she is only expediting the death and decay encoded in all creatures, while tipping the scales against humanity in favour of other organisms. Yet in the end, her microscopic view will give way to a grander, more celestial vision, as our species, and life itself, is placed in a planetary perspective.
strap: Anders Elsrud Hultgreen’s underground short blends microbiology, alchemy and the occult to show us our place in the cosmic sewer
© Anton Bitel