This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series
Movie Review – Häxan (1922)
Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen received rave reviews for his 1916 film Blind Justice when it toured in America. While showing the film to prisoners at Sing Sing in Ossining, New York, one convict knifed another, deeply disturbing Christensen. When discussing the incident with famed prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne during his brief but influential tenure as the warden, he was told that even the most career criminals possessed an emotional humanity that could be reached through the right methods. From this meeting, “Christensen began to think about how a belief in absolute evil caused mankind to dehumanize and persecute those with mental illness, deformity, and in poverty” (Steve Haberman, Silent Screams: The History of the Silent Horror Film, pg. 84).
In 1919, in a Berlin bookshop, Benjamin Christensen found a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witch persecution, and spent the next two years studying the history of witchcraft, determined to make an entirely new kind of film that would serve to explore the subject. The causal link between the historical Inquisition and inmate treatment in the modern world, being ignorance and inhumanity, was a pronounced and natural one. Häxan (1922), also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, is certainly one of the most unconventional films of the silent era, and for a viewer today the experience will be a unique one. Really a horror-docudrama about witchcraft, the film is at turns academic, horrifying, hilarious, and ultimately sobering.
Christensen takes a rationalist’s approach to witchcraft. He first approached scholars to help him with his film, but the low culture stigma of cinema and the unsavory subject matter meant their refusal. Left to his own devices, the first part of the film is Christensen’s own semi-scholarly lecture complete with artwork, moving diagrams, and a kickass mechanical model of hell. He explains the views of the pre-scientific world and how they shaped people’s absurd ideas about witches. He states, “The belief in evil spirits, sorcery and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” Based only upon this dry but nevertheless interesting opening, one might be forgiven for thinking this film will be dull, and they would be entirely, tragically wrong. While he does this presentation, he shows titillating and scandalous images from woodcuts and paintings, promising to show them to us with actors in due time. Christensen is a true showman who is building anticipation in his audience.
The second part is where the dramatic reenactments begin, and this is when the film gets trippy. Here Christensen shows us what medieval people believed was happening, not what truly was. The production quality is superb and is certainly some of the finest to be seen in the silent era. The attention to detail in the costumes, sets, lighting, and especially make-up is extraordinary, especially when Christensen himself enters the scene as the horny horned trickster Satan, with mottled skin and a darting tongue. Heavy with sexual overtones and libidinal metaphors – demons vigorously churn butter in obvious imitation of masturbation – the film features discreet but nevertheless tantalizing nudity and Christensen’s images continually fly in the face of accepted decency. As Steve Haberman writes, “the overall impression is of sex stripped of beauty and romance and made monstrously vile” (pg. 86). Häxan was the most expensive Swedish film up to that point and the effort shows. The quality of the make-up effects and props are not just surprising because of the era, but because they’re superior to most of what would come after for the next few generations. Additionally, there is even included an impressive stop-motion animation of a small demon tearing through a door.
The next part of the film is concerned with the realities of historical witch-hunts and how the infectious nature of accusations was inescapable and how they ruined countless lives. While Christensen employed horror imagery earlier, here he presents us with the true source of horror: ignorance and irrationality. Under the Inquisition the Church becomes a hell on Earth, complete with rotten-toothed, sadistic clergy and all the tortures the human mind can conjure. We see men of science accused of devilry and innocent women suffering for the lust they drive in men. Satan and witches are not horrifying, but the irrational mind frame which creates them is, and therefore “Christensen relates the Church to both ignorance and sadism, giving the impression that religion at its core is inseparable from evil” (Haberman, pg. 88). He mirrors the earlier scenes of demons with those of the clergy, visually driving home the view that they were essentially cut from the same blood-soaked ecclesiastical cloth. The sexual repression of the priests is displaced into deviance and perversion, and women – whose countenances so tempted them – are the objects of their unnatural release.
Finally, the film ends with an examination of modern medicine and offers some scientific explanations for the myths surrounding witches. Attention is especially paid to hysteria (in part what we would today call “conversion disorder”), which was seen as an exclusively female disorder from the nineteenth century until around the time this film was released, when Sigmund’s Freud’s theories were in vogue. Here Christensen is not only offering rational alternatives, but also criticizing the contemporary treatment of women and the less fortunate. He asks of his audience, “We no longer burn our old and poor. But do they not often suffer bitterly? And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us? Nowadays we detain the unhappy in a mental institution or – if she is wealthy – in a modern clinic.” He suggests that we haven’t moved as far as we think from the mindset that caused the witch-hunts and need some further self-examination to move forward, especially for the sake of women and those less fortunate who are still the victims of authority and misunderstanding. As Haberman notes, a theme of male apprehension regarding female independence crops up many times throughout the film, and each time it is a male authority figure, often through violent means, who suppresses:
“The final impression of Haxan is that women throughout history have been subjected to the control of men, sometimes mercifully, more often cruelly. Females are tempted and degraded by Satan, unfairly judged and punished by the Church, and diagnosed and shut away in clinics by modern doctors. The implication is that men fear the opposite sex and seek to control them. The final image in the film is a silhouette of the charred bodies of several accused witches bound to stakes after being burned alive: the ultimate method of male restraint and domination” (pg. 91).
The performances are strong throughout the film, with special attention to be paid to Maren Pedersen, whose elderly Maria the Weaver is tortured by the Inquisition as the camera keeps upon her lined face, allowing our imaginations to fill in the rest of what’s happening to her. She was not a professional actress but a woman Christensen found who was selling flowers on the street. According to the director, Pederson told him that the Devil was real and that she saw him sitting by her bed at night. She is truly pitiable and her visage on film is striking, both when she’s hungrily slobbering on stew and when tears are running down her cheeks. These close-up shots of faces in agony, in particular, riled many censors and caused the film to be banned or recut in many countries.
Yet while there are aspects of horror and serious social commentary, Christensen still employs his own morbid sense of humor to liven the film. Many scenes are playful and tongue-in-cheek, especially when dealing with medieval beliefs, such as the witches lining up to kiss Satan’s ass. The scenes are lively and nightmarish and could easily be put to a modern heavy metal soundtrack. And where else can you see Satan pop out and gleefully club a nun on the head? The transitions are almost dreamlike, leaving the viewer to question whether they are witnessing hallucinations or reality. Nevertheless, when dealing with historical or contemporary reality Christensen stays his hand and presents it matter-of-factly so as to not diminish its effect. All the while he maintains a reassuring, almost conversational tone with the viewer, reminding them that despite the seeming chaos on screen, there is method to all the madness.
Chris Fujiwara, in an essay written for The Criterion Collection, bestows high praise on Christensen’s artistry:
“Under any title and with any modifications, Häxan endures because of Christensen’s tremendous skill with lighting, staging, and varying of shot scale. The word “painterly” comes to mind in watching Christensen’s ingeniously constructed shots, but it is inadequate to evoke the fascination the film exerts through its patterns of movement and its narrative disjunctions. Christensen is at once painter, historian, social critic, and a highly self-conscious filmmaker. His world comes alive as few attempts to recreate the past on film have.”
Many silent films, even in horror, can have a sense of innocence to them. But there is no innocence here. Christensen offers an intelligent yet entertaining adult fantasy filled with adult humor, yet it is all coupled with important contemplations and explanations. In every scene can be felt the deliberate touch of an eccentric, macabre genius. The film was well-received in Denmark and Sweden but was banned in countries like the United States for what was considered graphic depictions of torture, nudity, and sexual perversion. In France, Catholic organizations mobilized against the film because of its negative depictions of the Church.
While largely a critical success, the film’s experimental nature meant limited distribution and audience attendance, making the film a financial failure and putting a pause on Christensen’s career for two years. He had originally intended Häxan to be the first installment of a trilogy, with the other movies being The Saint and The Spirits, which would have further explored themes of suspicion towards Christian institutions and an objective approach to spiritual matters. For The Saint Christensen had planned to explore religious hysteria, and for The Spirits he wanted to assemble the world’s foremost mediums and hold a séance, hoping to capture an actual spiritual manifestation on film. Though a few scenes were shot for The Saint, neither film was finished.
In the late 1960s the film received new life from British exploitation filmmaker Anthony Balch who shortened the film and added a jazz soundtrack as well as a narrative by “beat” writer William S. Burroughs. The film became a unique “midnight movie” rediscovered by a generation who appreciated its dark humor and deliberate touches of insanity. It’s time today’s horror fans rediscovered it as well.
Christensen’s 1916 Blind Justice is my favorite pre-Caligari horror/thriller, and Häxan is unquestionably floating, like a witch rubbed with flying ointment, somewhere at the top of my list of favorite silent horror films, and manages to even bespell the eras beyond.