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A witches' brew of fact, fiction and spectacle
Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (The Witch, 1922)
Häxan is a "compelling oddity that still retains its often shocking effectiveness and... is one of the most artful and influential of all silent films." James Kendrick here takes a close look at the history, style and reception of Benjamin Christensen's equally brilliant and bizarre "horror documentary."
The single, persistent question with which viewers are often left after viewing Benjamin Christensen's 1922 film Häxan (The Witch) is, what is it? Part illustrated exploration of the history of witchcraft, part grisly horror film, part burlesque comedy and part condescending reappraisal of the ignorant past, Häxan is nothing if not utterly unique, a compelling oddity that still retains its often shocking effectiveness and, despite being left out of many conventional film histories, is one of the most artful and influential of all silent films.
Modern audiences, raised on the idea that the gore and frank sexuality characterising horror films today were pioneered by Herschell Gordon Lewis, Mario Bava and George A Romero in the 1960s are often surprised to see Häxan's stark images of naked women under Satan's spell and a witch pulling a decaying, severed human hand from a bundle of sticks and snapping off a finger for a potion. For Christensen, there was no desire to leave anything to the imagination— he wanted it all up on the screen.
Often described as a combination horror-documentary, Häxan was far ahead of its time, as neither of those now-familiar film genres were part of the cinematic lexicon when it debuted. It premiered in Stockholm, Sweden on 18 September 1922, the same year that saw the release of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, generally considered the first feature-length documentary, and FW Murnau's Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors), one of the most important forerunners of the modern horror film.
Thus, 1922 was an important year in the burgeoning development of the documentary and horror film genres, yet Christensen was already combining them in Häxan—a nascent cross-genre experiment that didn't lead to a string of similar productions, but rather pushed the boundaries of the still-young film art in a direction few at the time dared to follow. In fact, Häxan was intended to be the first entry in a trilogy of films that would explore the history of superstition. The two other films in this proposed trilogy, however, The Saint and The Spirits, were left unrealised.
Benjamin Christensen: The other Danish director
Although Christensen is not as well known or frequently written about as his contemporary, legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer—whose La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1929) is widely considered a pinnacle of silent film art—he was a dedicated and innovative filmmaker whose early work in the teens and 1920s was as pioneering as anyone's, in Denmark and elsewhere. As Ebbe Neergaard writes, "It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Benjamin Christensen in those days was the one man in the Danish film industry who was most alive to the possibilities of the film, and most conscious of what film really is."
Christensen was born in 1879 in Viborg, Denmark. Originally studying to be a doctor, he ended up in the entertainment industry as a singer and actor. Unimpressed with the artistry of the films in which he starred, he decided to try his hand at directing, a move which resulted in Det hemmelighedsflude X (The Mysterious X, 1914) and Hævnens Nat (Blind Justice, aka Night of Revenge, 1916), two films that, while featuring unremarkable stories (the first was a routine spy thriller, the second a social melodrama), were shot with such inventiveness and artistic expression that Dreyer referred to them as "a tremendous step forward at the time" and described Christensen as a director "in touch with the future." It was clear from these two early efforts that Christensen was a visionary, a filmmaker willing to push the envelop of the nascent cinema, and it is a shame that neither of these films is readily available on video.
Following Det hemmelighedsflude X and Hævnens Nat, Christensen spent two years, from 1919 to 1921, researching the history of witchcraft and diabolism. Häxan was his bid to push film art in a new direction, to use the visual possibilities of the medium to explore the darker aspects of human history and find explanations for the irrational and superstitious in the modern realms of science and psychology.
Viewed today, there are elements of Häxan that feel overly pedantic, particularly when it moves into a then-revolutionary explanation of medieval witch scares through the lens of Sigmund Freud's theories about female hysteria, clearly oblivious to the misogynistic nature of the argument. Yet, even when it stumbles into discursive traps that are more readily apparent today than they were in 1922, Häxan is still a bold and persistently forceful film, one that straddles a fine line between a genuine desire to explore history and the lurid trappings of exploitation.
Transgressing high and low
In this respect, it is perhaps one the finest examples of the films Joan Hawkins discusses as simultaneously existing in the realms of high art and trash cinema: "These films promise both affect and ‘something different': they are films that defy the traditional genre labels by which we try to make sense of cinematic history and culture, films that seem to have a stake in both high and low art. This, if anything, is the best description of Häxan, as it seeks to enlighten even as it presents vivid—sometimes gruesome, sometimes campy—images that carry the uneasy sense of shock for shock's sake.
Initial reviewers of the film were confounded by this boundary-crossing aesthetic. In his 1923 review, a critic for Variety encapsulated it well when he wrote, "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition." And that is the nebulous space in which Häxan still exists: somewhere between "wonderful" and "unfit for public exhibition."
The scenes in Häxan most often discussed occur in the lengthy middle section, in which Christensen stages elaborate recreations of the supernatural stories that dominated medieval witchcraft scares. Not only are there recreations of witch trials, torture sessions and sentencing hearings, but also detailed images of the supernatural stories themselves: Satan seducing a woman in bed with her husband, witches performing Black Mass and kissing a demon's rear end, a woman giving birth to an enormous, snake-like demon and so on.
What is so striking about these macabre scenes is not just the surprise at seeing them in a silent film, but the convincing verisimilitude of the details. When one thinks of early horror imagery, it often includes the lumbering, square-headed monster of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), the debonair vampire of Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931) and the hairy beast of The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), all of whom were created with make-up effects that, while effective for the era, have not worn well over time, perhaps because of their incorporation into the subconscious of popular culture and their frequent parodies in texts ranging from The Munsters to Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).
Many of the make-up effects in Häxan, on the other hand, persist in their effectiveness eight decades later. The credits do not cite the person responsible for these effects, but they are as convincing as anything concocted by modern maestros such as Tom Savini and Rick Baker, even if they are given considerably less screen time. Häxan is an extremely well-edited film, mixing longer takes with brief glimpses of horrifying imagery, just enough to let the image begin to register in your mind before cutting to something else. For example, one scene shows a frightened woman in bed cowering as a demonic figure shaped like a mutated bird crawls up her stomach— if held too long, this scene could become silly, but the few seconds we see are instantly creepy and unforgettable.
(Re)creating the grotesqueries of the past
Häxan's grotesquerie is established during the first part of the film, which takes the form of an illustrated lecture, a popular venue for both education and entertainment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The film's "educational" intent is announced on the opening title card: under the title "Häxan," the cards reads, "A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view in seven chapters of moving pictures."
During the opening chapter, we are shown wood carvings, paintings, even three-dimensional models, while title cards offer matter-of-fact explanations about beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft, from ancient Persian beliefs in mystical creatures that caused disease to medieval folklore about demons stealing children. Christensen doesn't mince words here, stating the film's thesis outright: "The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe."
Yet he clearly recognised the potentially perverse pleasure and entertainment value in re-enacting these naïve beliefs on the screen. It isn't long into the film before it becomes clear that the presentation of these historical images of witchcraft serve as a grounding for the later recreations, and much of Häxan is in fact organised around bringing these ancient images to three-dimensional life.
The recreations begin in an underground lair in 1488, where we see several haggard old witches going about their business brewing potions. One arrives with a bundle of sticks, inside of which is hidden a severed human hand stolen from the hanging corpse of a convicted thief. What one notices immediately throughout this scene is the striking depth and complexity of the mise-en-scéne. While Häxan is often referred to as a forerunner of demon possession films such as The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), the horror film it most clearly resembles here is Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), whose grisly production design of skulls, bones, feathers and the like created an overhanging air of menace and heated dread.
Such is the case in this opening recreation in Häxan; the viewer's eyes are drawn to a human skull on a shelf, a macabre skeleton of a dog hanging above a steaming pot and the assortment of large, wooden kegs filled with unknown liquids. While many silent films of this era are unrelentingly stagebound, their constructed borders clearly demarcated, Christensen and production designer Richard Louw suggest depth and the not-seen, giving viewers the queasy feeling that the witches' lair extends beyond the edges of the cinematic frame and that there are far worse things tucked away in dark corners.
A lengthy section in the middle of the film tells the (fictional?) story of a woman accused of witchcraft and subsequently put on trial. It begins with a printer who has become ill, and a priest determines that it is the work of a witch by holding a ladle of molten lead over the sick man's body, then putting the lead in a bucket of cold water and "reading" the resultant shape. The printer's sister-in-law accuses an elderly beggar woman of being the responsible witch, and the woman is promptly dragged away and tortured by the Inquisition authorities. Sensational as this sequence is, Christensen develops the story in movingly dramatic terms, and his gritty depiction of the events and his use of the old woman's dirty, poverty-stricken body as an ironic counterpoint to the accusations of black power leveled against her are strikingly reminiscent of Dreyer's Vredens dag (Day of Wrath, 1943), which came out two years after Häxan's 1941 theatrical re-release.
Christensen casts the pathetic old woman as an innocent pawn whose torture eventually leads her to "confess" all manner of diabolic goings-on, which Christensen then recreates in stunning detail (a fantasy recreation within an historical recreation). This includes her giving birth to a squirming, bug-eyed demon; she and other witches flying through the air on broomsticks (visually accomplished by superimposing actors over a rapid, circular pan of a convincingly detailed model city); and a witches' sabbath in the forest accompanied by various hairy and misshapen demons and the gruesome sacrifice of an infant (although the impact of this scene is somewhat lessened by the obvious fakery of the infant doll used, the one instance in the film in which make-up effects fail).
In this portion of the film, as earlier, Christensen himself appears as Satan, playing up the role in operatic fashion by wagging his tongue and strutting his sizable, naked stomach, nearly turning the Prince of Darkness into little more than a randy prankster. In scenes such as this, in which the diabolic, sometimes incoherent, but frequently frightening imagery takes centre stage and any sense of narrative or pedagogical intent falls away, it is easy to see why the Parisian surrealists were so fond of Häxan (of course, they were also drawn to its blatant criticisms of the clergy, a thematic motif that made it difficult for distributors to show the film in many countries).
New life as a midnight movie
Unlike so many silent films that have been lost or discarded due to the ravages of time, Häxan has had a surprisingly long life. After the advent of sound, it was re-released in 1941 (something that was quite rare at the time) with an added prologue in which Christensen emphasised again the film's pedagogical intents with a lengthy lecture on the history of witchcraft. Häxan's most famous reincarnation, though, was its reconstitution in 1967 as Witchcraft Through the Ages.
British filmmaker and exploitation distributor Anthony Balch recognised the entertainment value of this silent-film oddity, particularly during a time in which the nature of cinema as an entertainment medium was in serious flux. Balch shortened the film from 104 minutes to 76 minutes, re-scored it with avant-garde jazz music and replaced most of the intertitles with a droll narrative by "beat" author William S Burroughs.
Thus, the film that defied the boundaries of the horror and documentary genres before either was fully formed, and that attempted to explain the irrational past through the rational modernism of science and psychology, found itself reconstituted forty-five years later as an ironic "midnight movie," one relished by a new generation of cinema-goers who took sardonic pleasure in the drug-inflected viewing of the flickering black-and-white images of demonic mayhem set to funky jazz tunes.
So, to return the question posed at the beginning—What is Häxan?—the best answer is not to answer at all. If Häxan continues to be an effective cinematic experience, crossing boundaries of not only genre and intent, but also of taste and respectability, it must remain an enigma.
It is, in many ways, the cinematic epitome of Freud's uncanny: we recognise elements of it as belonging to known and familiar categories, yet its overall formulation is bizarre and frustrating. To call it a horror film, a documentary, a horror-documentary or even a midnight movie is an easy way out, blithely falling back on the use of dominant genre categories to encapsulate a film that is all and none. More than eighty years after its initial release, and more than thirty years since its reconstituted re-released, Häxan continues to confound, surprise, shock and astound largely because it resists all boundaries, instead forcing viewers to develop new modes of spectatorship that take them outside the ordinary and remind them of the dynamic, always evolving nature of the cinema, then and now.
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