Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

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  • directed by Benjamin Christensen
  • starring Maren Pedersen, Oscar Stribolt, Astrid Holm, Elith Pio, Karen Winther, Wilhelmine Henriksen, Benjamin Christensen
  • A tracing of the history of witchcraft and the occult from ancient times though the early 20th century.

“Isn’t superstition still rampant among us?”

The endlessly fascinating history lesson of Häxan begins with a series of still photos detailing ancient civilizations’ superstitions and views of witchcraft. It comes as a shock (not even close to the only shock) when you realize what it is Christensen is attempting to pull off; that in 105 minutes divided into seven parts, he will be taking with him centuries of misguided and savage persecutions, tortures, and executions and making the leap of connecting them to attitudes he still sees as happening in his day. For a film that on its surface appears to be putting forth a point of view that follows a regimented format of “this happened at this time in history,” all of the rules fly out the window when it comes to his spectacular reenactments.

When Christensen says “I will now illustrate a trial for witchcraft from beginning to end,” it’s immediately clear, from shot one, that his costumes, lighting, and production designs will be unlike anything seen before. It also might be easy to assume that the stories he’s chosen to illustrate will follow the style of a documentary. Expected would be a style akin to the artwork from the beginning coming to life on screen in an easy to follow way. Christensen couldn’t keep himself from having fun, however, and in addition to some truly gross-out imagery, humorously so, the reality of nearly everything we are shown seems to arrive with just enough ambiguity to allow him to weave a complex fabric out of the real and the otherworldly combined. The effect from this at times is having the viewer thrust into the same unknowing mindset as the pious and accusing half of the equation.

After Part 1’s slideshow we are taken to the first of the illustrated segments, into the dark lair of a witch in 1488 when a visitor comes to request a love potion that will win her the heart of a pious man of the church. As the story unfolds, Christensen, as the narrator, incidentally the character easiest with which to connect throughout, then wonders if the staunch and frequently conjured up belief in witches alone was enough for them to actually be considered real. He wonders the same about the devil, who then shows up in church of all places, most assuredly the location that his name is invoked the most. When the devil pops up behind the bible and clutches its pages, it was as if Christensen posed a question to the witness, a terrified holy man: you live your life devoutly as if he was real, how shocking could it be that he actually is?

The third through sixth parts of the film begin with artwork of inquisition judges at work, followed by the central part of the film and of Christensen’s hypothesis, the events leading up to a trial for witchcraft. Here the visuals of the film graduate from the searing iconography of the earlier portion into more mature, evocative, and emotional filmmaking.

Maren Pedersen, a 78-year-old flower seller who Christensen cast as the main witch under trial has the face and, due to what I thought before I saw Häxan was trademark Carl Theodor Dreyer emotional staging and framing, the screen presence of Hildur Carlberg in Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow. One look into her eyes and you can see that Pedersen, the woman, has a lot of years behind her and has seen it all. Add to that the mental and physical torture that her witch character goes through and it’s all very devastating to watch. That is until the other shoe drops and she’s all of a sudden confessing to birthing several of the devil’s children and naming names of her fellow witches. The Dreyer comparisons don’t end there interestingly, as some of the more emotional shots in Häxan, six years earlier mind you, are probably the closest in style and pacing anyone’s ever come to what Dreyer accomplished with Renée Jeanne Falconetti. Two masters…one would hope mutual respect between them…nothing more to say about that.

Upon arriving at the moment when the witch will make her confession, the film then takes flight into a spectacularly bizarre reenactment of all that she says followed by another tutorial on ancient torture machines and techniques. Yet another jarring moment happens here when, as narrator, Christensen speaks to us directly to let us know that the actress he hired for the torture segments wanted to actually experience the thumbscrew, one of the more minor contraptions. So we see some of that sequence and are told that she was basically in hysterics before the clock struck one minute.

Finally the thick and multi-layered experiment of Christensen’s arrived at its conclusion. After creating images that may last in my head forever (I think he actually tapped into my childhood nightmares somehow), his lectures on medieval intolerance and the dangers of religious fanaticism and scientific ignorance, and his expertly realized narrative segments, the director now had to stick the landing. I honestly don’t know how I feel about the basis of the original question–comparing burning witches at the stake with the institutionalizing of hysterical or mentally afflicted women and the elderly. His argument may have fallen apart somewhere along the journey. It was, after all, a unique film that begins with a very structured classroom-like presentation and seems to get looser, blurrier, and more surreal as it approaches the analysis phase. There are probably clues and bits of Christensen ideology to absorb on repeat viewings, but the strength of the argument turned out to be irrelevant after all. I felt more than anything an emotion of gladness that he felt that the questions needed to be asked, and, controversy be damned, he went ahead and asked them.

There is a 1968 version of Häxan available on the Criterion disc that, though it has about a quarter of the original runtime cut off, is very much worth watching due to the added absurdity of cool jazz scoring and William S. Burroughs narration.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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