HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES directed by BENJAMIN CHRISTENSEN (1922)
Running time: 104 min.
Swedish intertitles with English subtitles
"So it happens with witchcraft as with the Devil; people's belief in him was so strong that he became real."
The mythical haxan doesn't NEED to be in my trusty copy of The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, because it's just the Swedish/Danish word for witch. Benjamin Christensen's Haxan is a film about witches, about the legends and stories surrounding them, their alleged activities, their treatment, their lore. It is fair to say he is as interested in the Devil as he is witches, and in Haxan Christensen explores the many ways we define, describe, vilify, and attempt to destroy these strange (imagined, accused or otherwise) beings, across culture, place and time.
"The Devil is everywhere and takes all shapes." I'll say! The images in Haxan are hella 1922, and although some critics say Christensen did not employ the most cutting-edge techniques, it's still quite a visual feast. And the characters get up to fun visual stuff, like lead reading, dramatic persuasion and coercion, mental and physical torture into admitting you're a witch, and the Devil's fevered, um, butter churning ... truthfully, it all makes me very anxious. And if you're into medieval torture devices, their uses, and visual demonstrations, you'll get yours, too.
Christensen studied Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century guide from Germany on hunting witches and inquisition. From using a pointer to physically show details of ancient paintings, to slideshow representations of witches, to live reenactments (starring himself as the Devil), Christensen shows us various ways we've been told these witchy tales, their histories, and what a creepy and delightful pastime the telling of these stories is.
Christensen gets real in the final chapter, explaining how "these days" (1922) we know that things like sleepwalking and kleptomania — or the ever-popular all-encompassing "hysteria" — are mental disorders, probably not caused by witchcraft. "In the Middle Ages, you were in conflict with the church," he states. "Now it is the law." I remember musing once how I was glad not to be a sensitive weirdo female alive in Victorian England. Medieval Europe?? No THANK you.
If you want to bring this into a feminist debate, come find me in the early Aughts, outside Turlington Hall, bumming cigarettes to Ntozake Shange and thinking it was the coolest thing ever. But the most expensive Scandanavian film of its time being made by an actor, storyteller and fascinated historian, in which he gets to call BS on us all AND play the Devil? I'm in.
Oh, and "The End" in Danish is "SLUT."