Witchcraft Through the Ages
Denmark / Sweden, 1922
Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 23 September 2008
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Reviews Häxan (by Katherine)
When Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden’s leading film studio (and home to such internationally renowned directors such as Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström), extended an invitation to Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen to come and make a movie, the result was 1922’s Häxan. Blending together documentary and fictional narratives, Häxan chronicles the history of witchcraft from Egyptian creation myths up through the 20th century, in the process focusing on the dividing cultural lines between “the occult” and “religion,” as well as “sanity” and “insanity.” Christensen seems equally attracted to the macabre lore of the occult - the film’s wildly surreal images drawing inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch - and in the social politics of persecution and paranoia. Christensen’s intertitles also directly refer to the film itself, and the process of making it, rendering it a piece of meta-cinema, and only making the experience of watching the film all the more hallucinatory.
The film begins in a didactic manner—quite literally, a filmed lecture on “Witchcraft through the ages” (as the film is sometimes referred to as) with accompanying slides. Intertitles take the place of a lecturer, even referencing authors and citing sources so as to impress their validity (these filmic footnotes, per se, were also used by D.W. Griffith in his The Birth of a Nation from 1915). While the images are on-screen, some of them even well-known paintings (such as the already mentioned Hieronymus Bosch), a wooden pointer appears in front, emphasizing details that are to be elaborated on in adjacent intertitles. (Often these details are appetizingly grotesque, blurring the educational/entertainment divide upon which the film is poised. In fact, for Christensen, there seems to be no separation whatsoever, between the two methods of audience interception.)
When the history lesson ends with the middle ages, the narrative component of Häxan picks up. Interestingly enough, none of the film’s famed occult sequences - of women lined up to kiss the Devil’s tush, witches flying through the night, and any number of bacchanalian episodes (often involving spanking) - are presented with any degree of objectivity. They are presented as either fantasy (such as when a woman commissions a love potion to seduce the local priest and revels in thoughts of its success), dream/nightmare (such as when an elderly woman collapses on the floor, only to see the Devil enter and exit through the walls of her house), or - most importantly - through forced confession to the local religious order. These confessions, procured after lengthy physical and mental torture, are the most detailed and elaborate in the whole film. Ironically, several priests can be seen hurriedly writing down all the details, literally hanging on the accused’s every word. All of which serves to underline the fictional element to witchcraft lore, and its direct link to both desire and fear, both of which are inexorable from one another.
There is an obvious parallel between the priests whipping themselves to force the witch’s curse out of their body and the devil who spanks those who confront him without having first sinned enough, but the extent to which Christensen views the camera as a modern incarnation of power - and a parallel to the priest/devil dichotomy - is worth considering. Towards the end of the film, Christensen interrupts the narrative to inject an anecdote that apparently happened during shooting: one of the very actresses who enacted a confession to the priests suddenly confessed to Christensen that, “The devil is real. I have seen him sitting by my bedside.” As film historian Chris Fujiwara points out in his essay accompanying the Criterion release, “No doubt Christensen was conscious of the analogy between the character’s confession to the inquisitors and the actress’ confession to him, between their torture implements and his camera.”
The religious power of the camera is commented on again in the final section of the film, in which Christensen analogizes the supposed signs of witchcraft not only to symptoms of hysteria in contemporary medical practices, but also to star-crazed movie fandom. Christensen draws a parallel between women of the Middle Ages who would be visited by the devil in their dreams to modern women who fantasize about movie stars (both are viewed within the film as symbols of sexuality and desire, while the church becomes the main instrument of torture and persecution). For Christensen, our fears and desires are dictated by those who control authority and those who control images: whereas the church occupied both seats of power in the Middle Ages, their comparative loss of power in the 20th century result in changing fears/desires, with government reigning over authority and cinema over images.
In another aside, Christensen explain how another actress on the set wanted to “try out” one of the torture devices, the “thumbscrew”: “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced form the young lady in less than a minute.” The director’s concealing of the horror reminds of Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man who, on-screen, puts on headphones to listen to the audio of two people being eaten alive by a grizzly bear, only to remark that no one should ever hear the tapes. In both cases, that which is ultimately the most authentic is kept repressed, as though audiences would be unable to handle the burden of unmediated/fictionalized horror. Ethically, however, Christensen is deeply reprehensible, as he not only holds the young actress’ secrets, but he also implicates himself as a modern inquisitor. Ultimately, what is so frightening about this moment in Häxan is not only the content of the repressed confession, but the manner in which it was obtained, as well as the identity of the man who obtained it.
Delineating between documentary (the research-based lecture), fiction (the narrative segments), and meta-commentary (asides referring to events that may or may not have occurred during filming), Benjamin Christensen has created an enquiry into both the historical and contemporary role of “the occult” and “religion” in society. At the same time, he has also crafted an extraordinarily detailed example of the macabre, one that revels in dark corners, shadowy figures, hallucinatory specters, gnarled corpses, and grotesqueries that had rarely been seen before, and even now - eighty six years later - can hold its own against any modern computer generated effects. Häxan’s power to fascinate, disturb, entertain, and enlighten, have only grown over time, the true sign of a masterpiece.