August 31, 2011

Häxan (1922)

In the early days of cinema, Danish film industry flourished with great success, beginning with the founding in 1906 of Nordisk Films Kompagni, the country's first filmmaking company. In five years, Denmark was now competing against the American, French and German film industries in the European market. This was the Golden Age of Danish Cinema, where figures such as actress Asta Nielsen and director Carl Theodor Dreyer began their careers. In those days, a young actor named Benjamin Christensen began his career in the film industry, and soon found himself beginning a career as a director as well. While by 1914 the Golden Age was reaching its end, Christensen still found some success with his two first films. In 1918, Christensen found a copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum", the book that inquisitors used as guide to deal with witches. Inspired by the horrors and superstition of the middle ages, Christensen conceived a film about how the misunderstanding of mental illness could lead to the infamous witch-hunts. The result was a legendary film: "Häxan".

Combining different documentary techniques such as slideshow and dramatization of events, "Häxan" ("Witch", though the film is also called in English "Witchcraft through the Ages"), examines the history of witchcraft during the Middle Ages, detailing the practices of witches and the ideas about them and demons that inquisitors of the time had. This is done initially with illustrations, paintings and intertitles, even a large scale model of the medieval view of the solar system is employed. Later, a dramatization takes place depicting several vignettes that cover several superstitions about witches. In these dramatizations we see a coven of witches, a black mass, and a group of monks being terrorized by the Devil (played by Christensen himself). Later, "Häxan" takes the form of a narrative fiction, in which an old woman (Maren Pedersen) is accused of witchcraft and her trial at the Inquisition is shown. In the final part Christensen shows vignettes about what his thesis: that mental illness was misunderstood as witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

Written by Christensen himself, "Häxan" is at the same time a serious documentary and a horror film, fusing both reality and fiction to construct what could be considered as one of the earliest examples of a film essay. The script, result of a big work of research on Christensen's part, is highly informative and does a great job in describing the beliefs and superstitions regarding witchcraft in the Middle Ages; certainly, Christensen knew his subject well, and the dramatizations, while definitely aimed to shock the audience, have a certain degree of authenticity (considering the knowledge available at the time of its release, of course). Christensen's fictional narrative is also quite good, well structured and faithful to historical records, or well, as faithful as it can be to suit Christensen's purpose. As a film essay, "Häxan" elaborates on a point, with each scene building up on Christensen's thesis on witchcraft and insanity; and while it's certainly an interesting observation, the director is a tad heavy handed on the repeated exposition of his point of view.

Where "Häxan" truly shines is in the remarkable way that Christensen built up the whole thing, displaying a level of originality that made the film unique. Documentaries were nothing new in 1922 (after all, cinema began with documentaries), but way Christensen employed the very diverse techniques to create his movie was so unusual that even today the film escapes a proper classification. It is a documentary that explores a complete new way to pose a topic. As written above, it's more a film essay on the topic of witchcraft than a documentary per se; so to elaborate on his morbid subject, Christensen conceived vignettes of shocking horror to truly portray witchcraft the way inquisitors saw it. The enormous amount of care done in the art design (Richard Louw), and the remarkable work of cinematography (by Johan Ankerstjerne) result in a powerfully atmospheric movie, one with a beauty so mesmerizing that truly seems like arisen from the depths of the Hell it depicts. At the time, it was the most expensive Danish film, and it shows.

Benjamin Christensen conceives pretty amazing set pieces that rival those of German Expressionism in their dark, ominous atmosphere. The cast does a great job as well, even when several were not professional actors (including Maren Pedersen, arguably the protagonist of the core dramatization). It's interesting to find Danish filmmaker Alice O'Fredericks as a nun, role she played on the film besides working as Christensen's script supervisor. In general, Christensen's level of care in his production is a testament of the interest he had in the theme. And perhaps this interest also explains what could be considered as one of the film's flaws: Christensen's narrative seems to ramble over its points a tad too much for its own good, resulting in a very slow rhythm that can be tiring at times. It's worth to point out that in 1968 the film was cut to 77 minutes for a re-release, with an added narration by author William S. Burroughs. It is this version the one that got the title "Witchcraft through the Ages". It's an interesting curiosity, though in no way an improvement over Christensen's vision.

Haunting, sombre, and visually beautiful, "Häxan" proved to be a controversial film because of its depictions of nudity and violence; however, director Benjamin Christensen managed to keep his vision almost intact and the result was one of the most unique and strange movies ever made. Half documentary, half horror film, "Häxan" showcases a collection of unforgettable images that can be disturbing and beautiful at the same time. The images of hell, the black mass, and the remarkable interrogation scenes (that may have given an idea or two to Carl Theodor Dreyer) are a testament of Benjamin Christensen's talent. Unfortunately, most of his films seem to be lost (at this moment), but at least "Häxan" survives to posterity as one of the earliest and most amazing film essays ever done.

Watch "Häxan" (1922) at Cult Reviews.

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