Directed by: Benjamin Christensen
Premise: Made in the silent era, Häxan mixes dramatic and documentary filmmaking to examine the history of witchcraft and the persecution of those accused of the practice.
What Works: The silent era was an exciting time in cinema because filmmaking technology was new and the movie industry was much more decentralized. Without an artistic precedent or corporate pressure determining how pictures ought to be made, filmmakers were free to experiment and the movies of this era that survive to the present day frequently have a novelty and a naïve ambition to them that some contemporary films lack. Häxan is such a movie. It was made ninety-two years ago and yet it’s still a bold and provocative film. The movie consists of several parts, opening with a summary of the depictions of witchcraft, devilry, and hell in the visual arts, then turning to the witchcraft panics of the Middle Ages, and finally addressing what were at the time contemporary concerns about mental health. The bulk of the film is spent on the middle section of the argument, dramatizing the witch panics of the Middle Ages, and this is where the strengths of silent era filmmaking work to the greatest advantage of the movie. Because of their subtle flicker and soft imagery, silent films tend to take on a surreal look. That’s the case here and the sequences that visualize the delusions and fantasies of witchcraft have a unique and theatrical look that is unlike anything in contemporary mainstream movies. That said, one of the aspects of Häxan that viewers unfamiliar with silent films might not appreciate is the way it deviated from the filmmaking norms of the time. By comparison to its contemporaries, Häxan had a very naturalistic style in its filmmaking and especially in its acting performances which are much more restrained than the exaggerated acting styles that were popular at the time. Häxan was and remains an ambitious film. It isn’t so much about the practice of witchcraft—which is largely the province of folk tales—and is instead about society’s reaction to it. Movies about witches and witchcraft tend to fall into two categories: either they depict villainous witches who prey on society and must be stopped or they expose the way witch hunts were used to achieve political power through the persecution of women. Häxan is in the latter camp and the movie portrays the power of rumor and belief to destroy a community as compellingly as The Crucible or The Devils.
What Doesn’t: Häxan can be misleading if viewers don’t watch it closely. The filmmakers visualize folk tales, rumors, and the delusions of the characters. Contemporary audiences are accustomed to filmmakers presenting their subjects very literally and today’s moviemakers tend to use obvious cinematic techniques to demarcate sequences that are not “real” within the diegesis of the film. The styles and techniques of the silent era were much more freewheeling and so viewers who do not pay close attention to Häxan might find its message about history and witchcraft to be confusing. At the time it was made, director Benjamin Christensen attempted to use the history of witchcraft and the persecution of witches in order to make a statement about mental health. In general, Häxan critiqued superstitions and abuses of authority and suggested that modern medical science had provided explanations for behavior previously believed to be caused by evil spirits. Häxan ultimately makes the case for more humane treatment of those suffering from mental illness and that remains a relevant and worthy goal. However, Häxan was a product of the early twentieth century and its claims regarding mental health are consistent with ideas popular at the time but more than nine decades later these ideas may be out of date.
DVD extras: Häxan is now in the public domain and so there are many home video editions of the film. Discerning viewers should seek out the Criterion Collection edition which includes both the original 104-minute cut and the 78 minute version from 1968 which features narration by William Burroughs. Extras on the Criterion edition include a commentary track, an introduction by the director, outtakes, and image galleries.
Bottom Line: Häxan is an important and well-made film. Today’s viewers don’t come into contact with a lot of silent movies but this one is worth seeking out. It’s visuals are striking, its themes are proactive and its examination of rumor-panics is as relevant now as it was in 1922.
Episode: #511 (October 5, 2014)