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  • Drama, Horror
  • 1922
  • 107 mins

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Film4

Synopsis

Benjamin Christensen's pioneering 1922 semi-documentary account of 'witch madness' just will not stay silent

Critic's Review

The year 1922 was to be a landmark in the history of cinema. Not only would it see the release of both Robert Flaherty's proto-documentary Nanook Of The North and FW Murnau's influential horror Nosferatu: A Symphony Of Horror, but a third film, Häxan, though less known, would break even more ground by combining these two nascent genres to disarmingly strange effect.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (who also appears in it as the Devil AND Jesus), Häxan is a genuine cinematic oddity. Announcing itself as "a presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures" on the subject of witchcraft, it blends pedantic, at times condescending didacticism with sensationalist dramatisations of diabolism, and boasts maquillage and special effects that would long remain without parallel.

If its first chapter is a dry lecture in intertitles with accompanying iconographic slideshow, uncovering quaint beliefs from the Middle Ages about the cosmos, religion, demons and sorcery, then the following chapters will vividly realise these histories and ideologies before our very eyes - all in the service of illustrating the persistent yet illusory grip of ignorance and superstition on the imagination. Christensen's film, like the medieval paintings, sculptures and engravings that it initially documents, can inspire irrational terror through the sheer power of its imagery.

Christensen deploys all the smoke and mirrors available in the filmmaker's arsenal - stop-motion effects, superimposition, film shown in reverse, amazing make-up - to bring medieval conceptions of witchcraft to life; but at the same time he imbues his more supernatural sequences with an absurd, oneiric quality that would make Häxan a favourite of the French surrealists. This faint air of the ridiculous, far from being an accident, is a central aspect of Christensen's strategy; for him, after all, the details of witchcraft, as construed by the medievalists, are and should be "totally insane".

In fact Häxan is a deeply rationalistic piece of humanism, exposing the horrors of superstition and hysteria rather than of witchcraft itself. Every scene of witchcraft here is carefully framed as a dream, a delusional hallucination, or the content of a false confession extracted under torture; and while we see body-snatching anatomists mistaken for sorcerers, women denounced in error (or malice) as witches, and repressed, neurotic monks and nuns convinced they are possessed by the Devil, the closest that the film comes to a 'real' witch is a crone (Pedersen) who concocts and dispenses obscure pharmaceutical philters and unguents - for money, of course.

Still, if Christensen always contextualises his diabolical content as mere fiction - and in the end reduces witch-like behaviours to recognisable pathologies calling for understanding rather than persecution - he is at pains to stress the grim historical realities of witch trials, inquisitional process and the instruments used to 'encourage' confession. Viewers are left in little doubt that the devilry at large in the Middle Ages was all too human.

With its graphic visions of devilish seductions, black masses, monstrous births, flying hags, cannibalistic feasts, orgiastic nuns and rampant satanic worship - not to mention its presentation of the clergy as repressed, treacherous and sadistic - it is hardly surprising that Häxan provoked such a furore upon its initial release, seeing it condemned by various religious authorities and banned outside Sweden for years.

Häxan was re-released in 1941 with an extended introduction by Christensen, but the version of the film that would gain the widest audience was re-cut by Antony Balch in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through The Ages. The Danish dialogue intertitles have been replaced with English-language ones, and gone altogether are the chapter divisions and Christensen's verbose (if charmingly mannered) commentary intertitles, so that the new film is shorter by a good half-an-hour while losing hardly any of the original footage.

In this version, William S Burroughs' drawled voice-over offers a vibrantly updated (and less disruptive) substitute for Christensen's missing text, and his presence, along with a howlingly discordant free jazz score by drummer Daniel Humair (featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin), transforms the film into a manifesto for the beatniks, hipsters and rebellious youth of the 1960s who, like witches, also enjoyed illicit medicaments and nocturnal gatherings - and felt equally misunderstood by the authorities.

Unsurprisingly, this snappier version was to become a fixture of the Midnight Movie circuit, bearing witness to the durability of Christensen's themes and images, which, for all their shocking weirdness, have an undeniable resonance - whether amidst the anxieties that followed the Great War and the influenza pandemic, or for the countercultural movements of the 1960s, or indeed today, when again we see people, many no doubt innocent, being imprisoned and tortured in the name of a crusade. A part of us, it seems, will always be living in the Middle Ages.

In a nutshell: Rationalism and superstition collide in this compelling genre experiment, exposing the medieval mentalities that persist in us all.

By Anton Bitel

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Elith Pio, Maren Pedersen, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Karen Winther, Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontoppidan, Tora Teje, Astrid Holm, Wilhelmine Henriksen
  • Director: Benjamin Christensen
  • Screen Writer: Benjamin Christensen
  • Photographer: Johan Ankerstjerne
  • Composer: Daniel Humair

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