Synopsis: Grave robbing, torture, possessed nuns, and a satanic Sabbath: Benjamin Christensen’s legendary film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. But the film itself is far from serious—instead it’s a witches’ brew of the scary, gross, and darkly humorous.
eyelights: its groundbreaking approach. its impressive production. its gorgeous photography. its campy performances.
eyesores: its disingenuity.
“In the middle ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.”
Do you believe in witchcraft? Are you superstitious? If so, ‘Häxan’ may just be the movie for you.
Released 1922, the Swedish film is a treatise on witchcraft and superstition through the ages, exploring some of the many beliefs that were once considered common knowledge and have been debunked since. It also attempts to demonstrate how claims of witchcraft and demonic possession could be contrived.
Designed as a sort of documentary, ‘Häxan’ is really a mixture of loose text-based facts and staged performances, turning it into a kind of faux doc, sort of in the same vein as ‘S&man‘. The key difference here is that this was a massive production, at the time the most expensive in Scandinavian history.
And it shows: ‘Häxan’ is a surprisingly splendid-looking motion picture that is filled with elaborate sets, costumes and a large cast. The photography is particularly eye-catching; writer-director Benjamin Christensen clearly had an eye for detail and for staging, making every scene truly noteworthy.
Clearly passionate about his subject, Christensen also joined the cast as the Devil (or the “evil one” as he’s referred to) wearing an impressive set of horns and long claw-like fingers. His eager performance, which has him wagging his tongue madly and churning butter violently is an absolute hoot.
And that’s mostly the vibe of ‘Häxan’, with its dramatic performances and mildly absurdist material.
Christensen conveys his message as though he were a teacher speaking to his students, editorializing as much as he offers researched factoids. He chose to segment his picture in seven chapters: 1. Sources, 2. 1488, 3. The trials, 4. Torture, 5. Sinful thoughts, 6. Techniques, and 7. 1921.
The first chapter essentially tries to give a primer on its subject, briefly delving into Persian history and then through history to prove that superstition goes back a long way. It also shows us with elaborate diagrams past beliefs of Earth’s place in the heavens. It’s all very hilarious now.
In fact, when I first watched this with a friend of mine, many years ago, we couldn’t stop giggling at the ridiculous notions being presented, not realizing that Christensen’s motive was to eventually show us just how all of these beliefs were merely the product of poor education and scope.
Our jubilation increased with chapter two, which shows us traditional perceptions of witchcraft, with an old hag making potions with human remains in her underground dwelling. It’s all very clichéd, but it gets good when a woman beckons Karna to make a monk lust after her. Her fantasies are a riot.
…as is Christensen’s first appearance as Devil, seducing and tormenting the locals.
Chapters three through five are really one tale broken into three parts, showing us how witches were perceived during medieval times and how the attitudes and techniques used during the period’s witch hunts were designed to succeed without any burden of proof: float = witch, drown = redemption.
My favourite part of this is when, in chapter four, the Inquisition manages to coerce an old crone suspected of witchcraft on looks alone to admit to having given birth to Satan’s children, these monstrous creatures. It eventually devolves into a scene of untold debauchery with many demons.
My friend and I bellowed at the sight of witches ceremonially kissing the Devil’s butt!
Naturally, the old crone starts to denounce some of the many women who have caused her grief through the years, telling the Church’s interrogators that they too are guilty of witchcraft. It’s a scenario not at all surprising and all too familiar to students of recent history; people are so easily vilified.
By the sixth chapter, Christensen’s film becomes exploitative, showing us in sequence a series of torture devices and how they’re applied, as well as a series of confessions made by demented people. It gets totally insane by that point and the Devil comes out yet again, this time to infect a convent.
Ultimately, though, Christensen gets to his point, comparing these past beliefs with modern ones, telling us that behaviour we used to attribute to witchcraft is now simply written off as hysteria, and asking us to contemplate if today’s techniques are really any more humane than the ones of yesteryear.
Seriously, ‘Häxan’ is a truly entertaining film; I just couldn’t believe how quickly it flew by. At the time of its release, however, it was controversial and was censored in some countries (or outright banned, as in the United States). But it’s not at all sacrilegious or offensive by today’s standards.
See it if you can. It’s too spellbinding and amusing to miss.
Date of viewing: October 8, 2016