(1922) Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen; Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Available on DVD
Rating: **** ½
“My film has no continuous story, no plot. It could perhaps best be described as a cultural history lecture in moving pictures.” – Benjamin Christensen (source: audio Criterion DVD audio commentary by Casper Tybjerg)
The phrase “ahead of its time” has been thrown about so casually to describe anything considered marginally offbeat, that it’s ceased to have much credibility. One film that manages to live up to such hyperbole is Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. It’s an almost indescribable hybrid, relying on equal parts horror, fantasy, history lesson and drama. Not quite a documentary, not quite a drama, Häxan is a blend of fact and fabrication. Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s somewhat prosaic description (quoted above) belies the film’s ability to shock, inform and entertain after more than 90 years.
Christensen relied on a number of influences for Häxan. While visiting the United States, he observed operations at Sing Sing prison in New York, which prompted him to consider themes of social injustice. Margaret Murray’s book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe also provided a key influence for the dramatic elements of his film. Häxan presents itself as a serious examination of the occult, but it’s much more than that. The film is structured into seven parts, with the first providing a fascinating and (gasp!) educational primer on sorcery and superstition. We’re treated to a series of still images illustrating how people have always sought ways to describe and influence the natural world. The subsequent segments present some rather fanciful depictions of satanic rituals, although the bulk of the film focuses on how individuals suspected of witchcraft in the Middle Ages were persecuted for their practices (or suspicion of practices).
The witch trial* scenes are disturbing, not simply because they point out the hypocrisy of the era, but the situations are so easily applicable to a modern context. Society has often been quick to embrace popular conceit and reject anything that might be construed as unusual. The self-righteous, sexually repressed monks, as presented in the film, were eager to condemn anyone who strayed from the acceptable range of normalcy. Although men were not immune to the inquisitors’ scrutiny, Häxan clearly illustrates how women, young and old, were the frequent targets of this witch-hunting fervor. In one powerful scene, one of the inquisitors employs deceit to force a woman into confessing. He tricks her into revealing her “knowledge” of magic under the auspices that she would be set free. Persecution, however, rarely stopped at one individual, but encompassed whole families and villages.
* In his informative DVD commentary, Casper Tybjerg points out approximately 40 to 50 thousand people were victims of the witch trials in Europe, contradicting the 8 million deaths claimed by the film.
In addition to writing and directing Häxan, Christensen assumed one of the film’s most prominent and memorable roles. He seems to have had a great time as The Devil, mugging for the camera, dancing and wiggling his tongue. Another performance worth noting is Maren Pedersen as an elderly woman accused of being a witch. Her anguished expression speaks volumes, as someone who can’t fathom her unjust imprisonment or death sentence.
Häxan’s stunning visuals are as compelling as its themes. Christensen used every trick in the book to paint a portrait of debauchery, corruption and evil (real and imagined). His film, which proved to be the most expensive Scandinavian silent, stretched the limits of visual effects of the day, through double exposures, prosthetic makeup and stop-motion animation. Christensen experimented with various techniques to achieve the desired effect of witches flying on brooms over the countryside. Hell and its torments were simulated through imaginative sets. Also contributing to the film’s unique appearance was the director’s decision to shoot many scenes in darkness, and feature prominent close-ups of the actors.
The last segment of Häxan is arguably the weakest, with its attempt to bridge the former segments with the modern day. Witchcraft and aberrant behavior is linked to the study of psychiatric disorders, which was in its infancy in the early 20th century. The witch hunts of the Middle Ages are contrasted with “humane” modern treatments and asylums. Compared to the scenes that preceded the final sequence, everything seems a bit rushed and tacked on. Christensen later admitted he wasn’t a big fan of the latter portion of his film, but decided to leave it in for re-screenings.
Christensen envisioned Häxan as the first in a trilogy of films dealing with supernatural subjects, to be followed by The Saint and The Spirits. Sadly, Häxan would prove to the first and last of the series. Critical and audience reaction to the film was mixed upon its initial release. Scenes of overt sexuality, torture and unflattering portrayals of Catholicism caused it to be heavily censored or banned outright in several countries, although it played without cuts in its native Denmark. Häxan saw several revivals over the ensuing decades, notably in 1968, with a shortened version narrated by counter-culture icon William S. Burroughs, but the 1922 cut remains the definitive version. Whether you care to categorize Häxan as a documentary, horror, or social commentary, it’s a true landmark.