1922 // Denmark // Benjamin Christensen
Criterion Release Date: 16 Oct 2001 (LINK)
Häxan is such a peculiar and ingenious work that was way ahead of its time when released in 1922.Composed of a mixture of genres, ranging from educational and documentary footage to fictionalized or factual reenactments, Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen exhibited his persuasive and insightful perspective on human ignorance and prejudice, meanwhile criticized male dominated, power-hungry religious and authoritative organization by commenting on witchcraft and witch hunt objectively.
The film, like most of silent films in that era, is divided into seven acts/chapters, bookended by two descriptive documentary sections. It opens with a close-up of the director’s fiery face. He introduced himself and his film crew, before revealing the non-enlightened view of the universe in different cultures, the Danteish description of a demonic hell and the engrossing practice of witchcraft, just as the viewers are attending in a history lesson. The serious tone reminds us that Häxan is more than a mere entertainment. The narrator, as known as the director’s surrogate, is represented by the intertitle cards, preparing us for the upcoming medieval stories.
The multiple short stories followed are both horrifying and farcical at times. Superb make-up, costumes and sets design, together with the sophisticated use of superimposition and double exposure, provide several menacing moments, for instance the witches bloom-flying scene certainly worth an acknowledgment. The intense close-ups and the apt staging during an interrogation, where innocent girl and woman are being tortured both physically and mentally for confession as a witch, presumably inspired Dreyer’s later Danish masterpieces, including The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943). The diabolical ritual in witches’ Sabbath is as appalling and grotesque as any body horror films, while some moments, like the demon ass-kissing scene, are unexpectedly hilarious.
The fanatical witch hunt in the name of God can be read in political metaphors, for example the accusation of being communists in the McCarthy era or the Islamophobia in the western countries nowadays. Benjamin Christensen maybe a prophet in disguise, beyond the riveting reenactment as a pure visual achievement, the film surely recalls antisemitism, unintentionally foreshadows an incoming war two decades later after the release.
The film closes in an optimistic high note, explaining the witch phenomenon in contemporary theory of Freudian while praising how modernistic and scientific they were (as in 1922). The diagnosis of a mere hysteria is actually outdated a century later as in the field of psychology. Perhaps the question is not how far “advanced” we are when compared to the past, instead we should ask ourselves what kind of “witches” we are hunting now, and, most importantly, are you sure you are the one not being hunted.