HÄXAN (Benjamin Christensen, 1922, Sweden, 83m, BW)
Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Elith Pio, Tora Teje, Johs Andersen, Karen Winther, Oscar Stribolt, Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Running Time: 87 min.
A hybrid of documentary and fiction, this silent film explores the history of witchcraft, demonology and satanism. It shows representations of evil in a variety of ancient and medieval artworks, offers vignettes illustrating a number of superstitious practices and presents a narrative about the persecution of a woman accused of witchcraft. The film ends by suggesting that the modern science of psychology offers important insight into the beliefs and practices of the past.
In 1919, When the Swedish film company Svensk Filmindustri invited Danish director Christensen to make a documentary on witchcraft, they probably didn't expect him to take three years - unheard of at the time - to finish the project. What they got was a meticulously fashioned film about medieval superstition and persecution, so daring in style and content that it caused a scandal.
The picture starts with a series of illustrations taken from medieval sources, with intertitles highlighting different aspects of the European witch craze. Then we are shown various scenes in which actors impersonate the supposed creation of charms and spells by witches, as well as the secret ceremonies, rituals, and orgiastic gatherings centering around the Devil and his minions - all based on the "confessions" and other accounts from witch trials. In the longest sequence, a man's death is attributed by his wife to the spells of an old beggar woman, who is then tortured by the Inquisition into confessing her pact with Satan. She goes on to accuse the dead man's household, including the wife, with complicity in her crimes, and they are in turn arrested and forced to confess, until almost no one is left in the deceased man's family. Then the priests move on to another town to continue their crusade against witches.
In the final section, the film focuses on the modern phenomenon of "hysteria" in women, a psychiatric term that was coming into vogue at the time, and makes connections between this mental illness and what was being called "witchcraft" in the Middle Ages. By skillful use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Christensen draws parallels between the symptoms and behavior of neurotic women in the present and those of women we have already seen in previous sections of the film, clearly inferring that the so-called witches were just unfortunate women who were persecuted for their neuroses.
The sensational aspects of Häxan are, of course, the scenes depicting the Devil and his orgiastic rituals. With spectacular costumes and makeup, and an unerring feel for lighting and composition, Christensen creates a startling nightmare world of bizarre imagery that is highly reminiscent of medieval fabulists such as Bosch. Some of the scenes include semi-nudity, and that - along with scenes of witches kissing the Devil's buttocks - got the film into trouble with censors. The special effects, as marvelous as they are (and still with the power to frighten), have unfortunately gained such notoriety that they tend to obscure Christensen's method and intent.
Director Benjamin Christensen divides the film into seven parts. The first is a straight lecture, which covers a history of witchcraft through the ages. The subsequent parts are sometimes interlinked stories that then illustrate Christensen’s treatise. As a documentary thesis goes, Häxan is not a particularly deep one – it makes the common mistake of equating witchcraft with Satanism, for one – and has more to do with Benjamin Christensen’s own speculations than with any great historical accuracy. Nevertheless it is fascinating. This is none more so than when Christensen leaps off into illustrating accounts of what the witches were purportedly up to.
The film’s end is fascinating. Here Benjamin Christensen carries the thesis through to the present-day and attempts to explain away much of the belief in witchcraft. This is illustrated with the dramatised case of an hysteric war widow who is driven to kleptomania and lighting fires in her sleep. Christensen makes fascinating analogies – between numb points on her back due to hysteria and the so-called witch’s marks; between flying on broomsticks and a biplane; between torture and the hysteric being placed in a hot shower by doctors to calm her down; between the entrance of The Devil through the window and the hysteric’s hallucination of a psychologist appearing through her window. Much of this imagery has more to do with fanciful visual connection than real explanation – in one scene, The Devil is equated with a psychologist, but Christensen then contradicts moments later by seeing the psychologist as the cure-all for the girl’s problems.
It is here that Benjamin Christensen’s thesis eventually becomes garbled. He wants to both have his cake and eat it too. He points to witchcraft and attempts to explain it away in modern psychological terms (although those terms are very naive ones when seen today), but then also tries to say that maybe there was some validity to witchcraft anyway, pointing to the modern prevalence of tarot and crystal ball readers as evidence. The effect is of a modern sceptic who denounces superstition as pure tosh but still steps over cracks in the pavement and avoids black cats just to be absolutely sure.
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