Saturday, October 3, 2015

Haxan (1922): The History of Witchcraft From a Silent Film-Era Perspective

Benjamin Christensen's Häxan or Witchcraft Through the Ages is sort of a documentary, and it’s the “sort of” that makes it still unlike any other film. The Swedish film blends fact and fiction in a purported attempt to explore the history of ideas about witchcraft from ancient times to 1922, when the film was made. Without meaning to, Christensen extended his film’s examination of changing attitudes almost one hundred years into the future. In other words, it’s almost impossible to reach the end of the film without reflecting on our own culture and how different it is from the world of 1922, when women were detained against their will and treated for “hysteria.” The fact that Häxan is still watched in 2015 also says a lot about what hasn’t changed: our interest in atrocities and perversions.

Demonic rites in Haxan.

Let’s face it. The main reason Häxan is still famous when other silent films have been forgotten, the reason it’s screened in the background at rock shows and underground dance clubs, and the reason it appeals to a broad range of people, young and old, is because of those atrocities and perversions. And I think Christensen knew full well what he was doing. While Häxan covers some parts of the history of witchcraft in detail (the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in particular), it never alludes to the Salem Witch Trials. Also absent is any mention of the witch in stories or fables. Christensen’s film style may be documentary-like, but it’s suspiciously subjective. He’s culled the material down to its most provocative and titillating. If woodcuts existed of naked young lasses being accused of witchcraft in Salem, I have a feeling it might have made the cut.

For all the facts—however accurate—Christensen presents us with, his main purpose seems to be to entertain, and to entertain by shocking the audience. And it works. Many people (and I’ll admit to being one of them) like their smut smart. We like nudity and violence and all manner of depravity best when it’s dressed up a little with facts, or history, or something artistic—something to make us feel as if our own urges and compulsions and interests are somehow superior to those of the unthinking masses. It’s worth noting that Christensen himself plays the Devil in the live-action scenes. The young women in the film who line up and kiss the Devil’s ass are kissing Christensen’s ass. The naked maiden who is lured by the Devil to the cemetery at night, where she falls to her knees at his feet, is lured by Christensen. The director himself wasn’t just intrigued by the perversions of witchcraft, but wanted to directly participate in them.

Director Christensen as the Devil himself.

Häxan’s seven parts begin with a study of the historical origins of witchcraft, from Ancient Babylon through Medieval times. Gruesome woodcuts are displayed: men boiled alive in cauldrons, devils pouring sulfur down men’s throats. To punctuate that this is serious business, perhaps, crucial details are highlighted by a hand with an academic pointer, as if we are attending an actual lecture. A steam-powered mechanical representation of Hell features animated demons torturing live victims, like a macabre vignette on a Disneyland ride. Eventually we learn a little about witchcraft, and the things witches were said to do, such as setting villages on fire, bewitching cows, and dancing naked with the Devil. I’ll leave you to guess which of these three we’ll hear more about as the film progresses.

Part two of Häxan features live-action sequences, presented as sort of pseudo-historical re-enactments of things witches were purported to do. The film becomes a bit more gruesome, but also darkly humorous. An old witch rips fingers from the hand of a dead thief to make one of her concoctions, which is decidedly gruesome (the scene was cut by Swedish censors), but later tells a woman who wants a love potion to drop some cat feces into his drink (try not to giggle at that one). Things take a turn for the dark (and depraved) when the Devil shows up, and boy, is he repulsive. I have no idea how Christensen’s real face might have looked without his satanic makeup, but his body is hairy and barrel-chested, and his waggling tongue just looks downright dirty. And he is dirty, as we soon see, seducing a woman as she lies in bed with her husband sleeping right beside her, or furiously working a butter churn in a not-very-well-disguised pantomime of masturbation.

The film’s worst atrocities come into play with the introduction of the Inquisition, as we see innocent women betrayed by other women who want to save their own skin. The scenes of a beggar woman being tortured are harsh by any decade’s standards, and the extreme close-ups of her face, and the agony it betrays, are forerunners of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. (Those close-ups were also cut by early censors, which is a sign of how great the acting is—that mere faces were deemed too brutal, as they betrayed the severity of the torture so explicitly). There’s plenty more torture to come. A young monk is flogged as punishment for sinful thoughts, and again, we see his face in close-up. It’s not a way of shying from the violence (we are later shown his stripes), but of driving home the agony.

A witch's body being marked by a demon.

And there’s a stew of salacious stuff left to depict. Witches transforming into cats to sneak out at night to defecate in altars. Women stomping on crosses and giving birth to demons. Nuns given over to mass insanity. Christenson doesn’t miss a thing if it seems shocking, which is why it seems so strange (especially by modern standards) that he ends the film as he does. The director points out that women accused of witchcraft in older times were often just old ladies with unappealing features that made them targets: humpbacks, or tremors, for example. Often they were suffering from mental illnesses. Today, though, they are taken in by nursing homes and charity organizations.

Young women fare less well, though, in this enlightened year of 1922, though Christensen presents their difficulties and the “modern” treatment as sort of a “Gee whiz, look how lucky we are today” coda. He talks about “hysterical” women—a term we know encompassed anything from an array of mental issues to simply being vocal or opinionated—and how today they are detained and treated in a clinic. Today we know a bit about what those treatments may have been, which makes this ending to the film one of accidental horror. “It would be a pity if your daughter were to have an unpleasant exchange with the police,” says a doctor, before committing a woman’s daughter to confinement and treatment. 

Haxan may be full of atrocities, but relax: it's art.

Häxan was cut down and re-released in 1968 with a bizarre narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz soundtrack, and it’s this version that made the rounds of college film festivals and underground film nights. I highly recommend watching the full, uncut version, though, with its original title cards and classical soundtrack with Wagner and Chopin. No need to feel guilty: this is smart smut.

You can watch Häxan for free on Hulu, or buy it on DVD or instant streaming at Amazon.

This is post #3 for Film Dirt’s 31 Days of Silent Horror Films. See the link for the full list of films so far.

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