Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
October 3, 2019
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
äxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), a genre-bending horror movie, is an audacious experiment whose ingenuity and ambitious craftsmanship holds up. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, a Danish filmmaker who otherwise leaned more toward orthodox drama in his career, the movie is part standard-fare venture into the macabre, part academic-style documentary.
Encompassing four acts, the feature both provides a broad overview of superstition and witchcraft through the centuries. It's replete with diagrams and pointer sticks — living up to, even exceeding, what its subtitle hints at — and “reenactments” that make high drama especially out of the witch hunts that defined the Middle Ages in particular.
The film is a triumph of the two forms. It turns the oft-dead-serious documentary mold into something more playful and free-wheeling — Christensen’s investigations, stylishly composed and presented, have a look-what-I-just-found out glee to them. Its drama, visually shaded in Hell-red, often resembles Hieronymus Bosch paintings come to life — night terrors that’d be unfathomably frightening if there wasn’t a sense that the author behind them didn’t have a little bit of his tongue resting in his cheek. (Though if you’re squirmy around images depicting Satan, played by Christensen here, causing mayhem all the while wagging his licker like a wily dog, or really anything that evokes Hell as it probably stands, then maybe you might want to stay away.)
Christensen’s vision is unflappable and still-forward-thinking — so much so that you wonder how it got made at all. Critical reception, upon its 1922 release, was unsurprisingly uneven. Yet there was never necessarily an uproar in its native Europe like one might expect — more a watch-it-if-you-dare verve attached to it. (That wasn’t the case in the United States, though: the film was banned outright.)
The only part that really dates it, perhaps, is the final act, which seeks to uncover how, in 1922, witchcraft might look in comparison to preceding centuries. I initially expected Christensen, who spent all of 1919 through 1921 researching for the project, to bring some investigative journalism-style diggings to the vanguard, shining a light on hush-hush societies which might consider themselves made up of witches.
Instead, Christensen deduces that witchcraft, as we’ve seen it thus far, probably doesn’t exist in the then-modern day. What takes its place, he figures, is mental illness. Christensen infers that women with psychological scarring — most often women who suffer from “hysteria” — are the ones who, today, are the closest thing we have to witches and warlocks. Meaning that, those who were burned at the stake or thrown into rivers with their limbs tied were probably just mentally ill. Christensen, at one point, compares the scalding-hot showers given at asylums to the flame-licked murders women had suffered.
The comparisons offered are myopic and unconvincing, obliquely putting women at fault for a lot of the cruelty they suffered. The factual broadness of everything coming before it is excusable, in comparison. There’s arguably nothing wrong with the movie being much more a digression in stylistic innovation than a thorough academic article adapted into a movie. But once theories downplaying misogynistic violence and murder are offered, much of the anteceding appeal starts to wear thin. What Christensen more likely means to say is that the travails of a select few mentally ill women catalyzed witch-hunts, the public not understanding that real ailments were not one and the same as the occult at the time. But the lack of clarity — and the continuation of a high-spirited tone — is compromising.
Still, that Häxan is a marvel is something that can’t be reduced by a near-100-year-old dearth of final-act sensitivity. Christensen undoubtedly was a prescient filmmaker. Aware of the possibilities of the documentary, which was at the time working out its conventions, he explored them to an effect that, now, might be reacted to with indifference. Reportage seasoned by reenactments is blasé by now. Channels like Discovery and TLC have mastered the art with machine-like efficiency. It’s as if the writer and director knew which orthodoxies would become documentary mainstays in the future and eked every ounce of potential from them. A-