This legendary silent film, much admired by the Surrealists, is a spellbinding brew of ingredients that don’t naturally mix, at least not in modern cinema. Combining the scholarly and the outlandish, the fact-based and the supernatural, Häxan is simultaneously a documentary on witchcraft and a collection of wildly fanciful visions. Banned or censored in many countries on its release in 1922 for its candid depiction of nudity, sexuality and torture as well as for its strong anti-clerical tone, the film has retained a sulphurous aura to this day.
We have to remember that at the time the film was made there were no clear boundaries between documentary and fiction. In the yet uncharted waters of the nascent film art, the aim of director Benjamin Christensen was to make an educational, informative film that would also have artistic value. Christensen himself embodies the paradoxical position of the film, poised between objective and subjective, rational and irrational. The director is the first-person narrator in the titles and as such he is the voice of rationality that coolly comments on the mass delusion that gripped ancient, barbaric times. But in an intriguing personality split, Christensen – who started his film career as an actor – also plays the lewd, tongue-wagging Devil that represents the violent, uncontrollable irruption of the irrational in the human mind.
The factual content of the film was very important to the director, and this is obvious in the detailed, realistic depictions of medieval daily life and dress and of the torture instruments used at the witch trials. He had even hoped that scholars would write the ‘script’ for the film but his request was rejected by academics who thought that cinema was not a suitable vehicle for serious study. Christensen therefore did his own research, drawing on medieval woodcuts, illustrations and treaties, in particular Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a witch hunter’s manual written in 1487 by two Dominican monks.
Through the meticulous recreation of the past Christensen wanted to educate his audience about the consequences of superstitious and intolerant beliefs, demonstrating how they led to the persecution of anyone seen as different – in this case, the very old, the very ugly, beggars and cripples. These beliefs were stirred up and influenced by the Church and Christensen starkly denounces the responsibility of the Christian clergy for the burning of 8 million people at the stake (although the scholar Casper Tybjerg explains on the Criterion DVD that the figure is in fact closer to 50 000). In one of the titles Christensen explains that the ‘witch madness’ was like a ‘spiritual plague’ that followed wherever the monks of the Inquisition went: the monks were not the remedy as they claimed, they were the disease.
Christensen’s position is explicitly rationalist and he contrasts obscurantist medieval superstitions with enlightened contemporary society: ‘The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naíÂ¯ve notions about the mystery of the universe’, reads one of the titles of the first section. Emphasizing the point, we later see two pioneer medical students accused of being witches because they have stolen bodies in the cemetery, which they were planning to open in order to learn more about how disease affects the human body.
Yet, for all the rationalist posturing it is the representation of the supernatural that makes Häxan so memorable. Christensen clearly relishes bringing to life the fears and horrors that lurk in the human mind. The masterful use of light and shadows, the actors’ rugged features, the red and blue tints that lend the black and white images an otherworldly quality all contribute to infuse the film with a pungent, macabre atmosphere. At times it is as if paintings by Goya, Bruegel or Bosch had been magically animated. The scene of the witches flying through the air above the sleepy town remains not only impressive in terms of special effects but strikingly poetic while the unholy scenes of the Sabbath, with their orgiastic excess, uprooted trees and sinister blue tint have a truly nightmarish beauty.
Christensen is least persuasive when he takes us back to the rational, modern world and attempts to demonstrate Professor Charcot’s theory that the phenomena associated with witchcraft were caused by hysteria. While he convincingly connects witchcraft to sexual repression in the medieval section, he doesn’t seem able to make a similar link with so-called ‘hysteria’ in the modern world. We see women affected by somnambulism and kleptomania but Christensen seems unable to engage with their troubled minds. As a result, while the medieval depictions of a monk being willingly flagellated for lusting after a young ‘witch’ or of a whole convent of nuns overcome by uncontrollable delirium are heady, potent sequences, the modern somnambulist and kleptomaniac are little more than dull, superficial case studies. It is as if Christensen’s attempt to remain within the strict boundaries of rationality in the last chapter had killed off his capacity for imagining the unspeakable corners of the human subconscious.
What’s more, blinded by his rationalist stance, Christensen is unable to see that Charcot’s pseudo-scientific diagnostic of ‘hysteria’ is just as extravagant as the previous witchcraft accusations – and just as misogynistic: women are no longer dangerous heretics to be burned at the stake but deranged patients who need to be treated in institutions. Granted, Christensen’s lack of perceptiveness is mitigated by the fact that he was after all a man of his time and couldn’t possibly have guessed that decades later hysteria would be widely discredited as a valid medical diagnosis by scientists and feminists alike. Paradoxically, this means that the film can now be seen as an unwitting denunciation of rationalist certainties: what was held as true in the Middle-Ages was reviled as superstitious drivel in the nineteenth century, but what passed for science in the nineteenth century has now been repudiated as unfounded nonsense. While this is obviously not what Christensen had in mind, it adds a piquant new layer to the film’s complex mix of fact and fiction.
Fifty years after its original release, Häxan remains a fascinating film for its alien beauty, its singular blend of the real and the supernatural and its intelligent investigation of the psychological mechanisms behind the witch hunt mania. In that, it is a timeless work, which just like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, applies far beyond its explicit (or implicit – McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in Miller’s play) subject matter. Watching The Crucible performed last year was a powerful reminder of how relevant its dissection of the phenomenon is to our own times. Häxan sounds as stark a warning: the monks it depicts are convinced that they are protecting Christianity from evil; believing that they are fighting on the side of good against the terrifying threat of darkness posed by the ‘witches’, they feel entirely justified in their use of torture, brutality and deceit to extract confessions. See the parallels with our troubled times yet?