Häxan (1922)

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*. The allure of the odd. At the beginning of his audio commentary on the Criterion DVD Casper Tybjerg describes Häxan as “a film like no other.” And it wasn’t just unique in its day; it’s never really been imitated.
*. Is it sui generis? Tybjerg spends some time discussing whether or not it can be considered a documentary (making it one of the first). I wouldn’t apply that label. It seems to me to be to just be a historical drama with a scholarly introduction and other asides. But I’m not sure it matters anyway.
*. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen claimed he wanted to present “a cultural history lesson in moving pictures,” and I think he may have been sincere. In the early days of any new medium there has been a dream of a popular form of entertainment that would educate the masses. It is a dream with a long history: through radio, film, television, and now the Internet. We’re still waiting. The masses seem less interested in instruction than delight. They don’t look to a new medium for its potential to educate. They don’t want cultural history lessons.

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*. Can we call it torture porn? That may be going too far, but it’s easy to forget how sadistic, violent, and even gory early films were. They were as nasty and shocking as they could be given the censors of the time and technical limitations. In the first dramatic sequence here, for example, we have a witch snapping a finger off the hand of a thief’s corpse (a scene that was cut from some prints).
*. The prurience is also undeniable. The meaning of the devil pumping away on his butter churn is kind of hard to miss. Christensen justifies showing nudity by saying it was the custom in the past to sleep naked in bed and for witches to travel about in the nude. So he’s just being historically accurate! As he also is when he points out that it wasn’t just ancient crones who were accused of being witches. Pretty young women were hauled before the tribunal too!

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*. Apparently his other idea for a documentary at the time was something on hermaphroditism and sex hormones. One can scarcely imagine how that would have turned out.
*. Of course there are pitfalls when it comes to doing something a little different. A movie imagined as a mosaic, with no single coherent narrative, no heroes or heroines, no spectacle and no suspense, was going to have a hard time finding an audience.
*. I’m not sure how popular Häxan was, but I don’t think it made money. It was very expensive, but not because of anything you see on screen. According to Tybjerg there were massive costs associated with the Swedish backers buying Christensen’s old film studio in Denmark (where the film was shot) and completely refurbishing it for him. Christensen also had a nocturnal working schedule that required lots of overtime for his crew. Why he thought it was somehow appropriate for such a film to be shot at night when he was shooting in a studio anyway is beyond me. I think he probably just liked working at night.
*. It is a very dark film, visually. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think Christensen makes full use of the frame very often.

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*. So despite the big budget this is not a historical epic filled with massive sets and a cast of thousands, and doesn’t even feature much in the way of special visual effects (compare Murnau’s also very expensive Faust just a few years later). Instead it recycles the same handful of actors and small sets. That may have hurt it as well.
*. There’s Pazuzu! We wouldn’t see him again on screen until The Exorcist.

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*. As already noted, some material was cut by censors. I’m not surprised. There are some pretty crazy scenes here, what with babies being tossed in stew pots and women lining up to kiss the devil’s ass. I think the freakiest bit though is the woman giving birth to the demons. It made me think of that maggot-birth scene from David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly.
*. It’s impossible not to see the influence on Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in all of the close-ups, particularly with the tear-streaked, uplifted faces of persecuted women. Tybjerg is good on the background here, pointing out how the close-ups were seen by the censors at the time as indecent. You just weren’t supposed to see faces that big.

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*. Many people see the final section, set in modern times, as a let down. I wonder if that’s because we’re more familiar with the argument: that mental illness explains a lot of what was considered to be black magic in the bad old days. Psychiatry was still a new field in 1922.
*. The burning witches is an odd image to end with, isn’t it? It yanks us back out of time present into the demon-haunted world, with no explanation. Tybjerg doesn’t comment on it. Perhaps Christensen just wanted a strong visual and he couldn’t come up with a contemporary one. Or perhaps the burning figures are deliberately juxtaposed with the woman entering the healing shower in modern times.
*. Christensen aspired to do something different, but I think he also wanted to lay out a path to a different role for film than just cheap entertainment. No one followed his lead. Cultural history lessons are not best taught by moving pictures. You can always learn more from books.

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