Häxan, or, Witchcraft Through the Ages, is a Swedish/Danish silent film from 1922, directed by Benjamin Christensen. The film is structured into seven chapters of “moving pictures” – informing viewers about witchcraft and the occult through history and art, and through a variety of case studies. This is a beautiful silent film that is often used in the same sentence as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). If you have an interest in the occult, or in the silent film era, this is definitely one to watch. However, if you’re expecting a vibrant and scary horror film, then you might want to do some more research before watching it.
Häxan is, firstly, a very interesting film. When I began watching it, I didn’t expect it to be as graphic as it is, in terms of both its content and its visuals. Its art director, Richard Louw, and cinematographer, Johan Ankerstjerne, have crafted one of the most beautiful and visually daring silent films that I’ve seen. The sets and costume design are equal parts beautiful and creepy, and are impeccably detailed. Which makes sense, since this is the most expensive Scandinavian silent film ever made. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also quite informative, and I ended up learning a lot about the history of witchcraft and witch trials. The acting is also quite good for a silent film, particularly that of the titular Häxan (translation: witch), an old woman whose pain is heartbreaking to watch.
There is a version of the film with William S. Burroughs as the narrator, which I would have loved to hear. I watched the version with the regular silent film title and dialogue cards. In this version the visuals are accompanied by quite contemporary classical music which seemed to be carefully selected for each scene.
The film begins with a history of witchcraft, which is information-heavy, but has beautiful art direction. We are shown art, etchings, sketches and sculpture of occult figures and gods and goddesses from ancient religions. There is a discussion of the motifs and themes of witchcraft, which leads the viewer to a deeper understanding of the overall occult world. This introduction was quite clever, as it serves the purpose of teaching the viewer to accurately locate the concepts that they see later on in the film.
Further into the film, we are introduced to a witch who brews up a tasty love potion for a woman who seeks the affections of a chaste monk. In this part, we see the devil for the first time in the film, and he is actually really scary. The linear narrative parts of the film are shot very simply, usually from one wide camera angle showing the contents of a room, and then a series of close-ups on each of the characters’ faces. In Häxan, the production has made great use of the limited technology available. Without modern technology and computer effects, the film uses reverse footage, puppets, and stop-motion animation in order to achieve optimum levels of creepiness.
As aforementioned, the film is quite graphic in its blunt portrayal of witchcraft. We are shown babies being drained of their blood and cooked, and Satan being ‘amorous’ with naked women. Another sequence shows two witches urinating into chamber pots and throwing the urine on the door of someone they want to curse. One scene shows the old witch giving birth to children fathered by the devil – grotesque demons with spiny and furry bodies. The costumes are slightly disturbing, and seem even more so because they’re viewed silently. All of this might seem ‘tame’ by today’s standards, but I can only imagine how strange it would have been back in the 1920s.
One of the most interesting segments of the film is where we are shown a longer story of a family whose female members are, one by one, accused of being witches and are put to trial. By initially accusing an old woman of being a witch, the female members of the family are paradoxically also accused of being witches, highlighting the Catch-22 of being involved in trials at the time. As the film explains, “Each witch gives 10 other witches away”, but how are we to know whether they’re really witches, or the accused just wants her torture to end?
Häxan also touches on the female politics of the Middle Ages and how this influenced the search for witches. In one scene, a pretty young woman clutches at the arm of a monk, pleading for him to put a witch to trial. Later in the film, that monk, having seemingly fallen in love with the young woman, claims that she has put a spell on him and that she is probably also a witch. One of the aspects that I appreciated about the film is that it gives the space to allow the viewer to make their own conclusions about such issues. It’s unclear whether the director or the narration has any religious leanings, and Häxan seems to be free of the bias that might usually cloud documentary-style films about the occult.
My very favourite part of the film was the final chapter, where the concepts of witchcraft and the characteristics of being a witch in the Middle Ages are contrasted with the symptoms of mental illness and hysteria in modern times (that is, the 1920s). Even though nowadays the concept of ‘hysteria’ is slightly dated in the mental health world, this was an excellent way to bring together the ancient and the modern in order to gain a better understanding of how the two could be correlated. As the film so aptly summarises: “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.”
Even though Häxan is an interesting and informative silent work, at times it can be quite slow. Although some silent films can be more punchy and fast-paced than others, this is one where you really have to concentrate and take in all the information you’re being fed. If you’re looking for something like The Blair Witch Project (1999), or The Conjuring (2013), then this is not the film for you. A conventional horror film about witches, this is not. However, what this film is, is a beautiful and interesting historical document on quite a specific topic, and I’d definitely recommend it for people who a) enjoy silent film, and/or b) have an interest in the history of witchcraft or ancient religions.
Watch the trailer here.
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