Doc of the Day: Häxan Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Häxan

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 06, 2012

Go way back in time to one of the earliest documentaries: this silent Swedish/Danish film about witchcraft.

Dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922, 106 min

It took me a while to decide whether Haxan “counts” as a proper documentary. This film is around 90% recreated material, and not even of factual events, but of hypothetical scenarios based on history, and of scenes that the filmmakers imagined would be imagined by the people experiencing those hypothetical scenarios. In the end, I decided that if The Juche Idea worked for me, than this one should as well. Even though most of this movie is fake, that fiction exists not for its own entertainment end (at least, not entirely), but to address contemporary issues, and in a direct and not metaphorical way.

Benjamin Christensen, the director, made this film to explain an idea he came up with while reading accounts of witchcraft and witch-hunting. He believed that the behaviors that people thought of as demonic influence throughout history could be explained as what had recently come to be understood as mental illness. Sleepwalking, insensitivity to pain, and hallucinations could all cause you to be accused of being a witch. The film is about moving beyond superstition, although it also casts a critical eye on the modern treatment of “hysterical” people, suggesting that the contemporary practices weren’t so far removed from medieval torture.

But Christensen’s thesis only comes at the end of the film. The majority of the movie consists of unconnected scenes of various medieval people either practicing or being affected by witchcraft. It’s difficult to tell what’s is “real” and what depicts what people thought were happening. Haxan is essentially a horror movie.

Under the auspices of portraying the way that historical people would have envisioned their superstitions, Christensen is really just indulging the audience’s superstitions. There’s frankly no other reason for the many scenes of black sabbaths, Inquisitorial torture, and demons than to scare and thrill. The lurid attention to grotesqueries calls into question Christensen’s intentions. Reading the Malleus Malificarum and such more likely sparked his sense of showmanship than social duty. And you know what? That’s okay.

The doc’s content is mostly tame by today’s standards, but back then it was shocking, with more nudity and devils and thumbscrews than many 1920’s audiences could handle. Many countries censored or outright banned the movie. It wasn’t released in the United States until 1968, and even then only in a heavily edited version (which featured narration by William S. Burroughs!). This is a landmark not just in documentary but in horror filmmaking. Released the same year as Nosferatu, coming two years after The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, you can see the tactics of filmic scares forming in the films of this period. If you’re a film student or a horror lover, you need to check it out.

Christensen was one of the first to recognize cinema as a medium for expressing ideas, and Haxan was one of the most expensive and ambitious productions of the time. There is a lot of nifty makeup and special effects work here. The modern viewer will easily figure out how they pulled off the spells and magic tricks, but back then it was probably unfamiliar enough to add to the film’s atmosphere of the supernatural.

The large budget and Christensen’s sensibilities pay off in the visuals. In one scene, a nude woman and an owl, veiled in shadow so that we see them only in silhouette, sit atop a hill and watch a flock of witches fly by on broomstick. A demon torments an old woman  in her dreams, as she chases riches of coins that flee from her hands. Such bizarre yet lovely imagery builds an eerie, otherworldly tone that transports you wonderfully. You may not feel an urge to burn a witch afterwards, but it’s spooky stuff.

In many ways, though, Haxan is almost the 20’s equivalent of the modern so-called “torture porn” genre. It’s much more sophisticated than the average Hostel knock-off, but its scares still rely mostly on shock. There is no continuity between scenes, and the central idea is more of an excuse for them to be there than anything else. Since time and changing sensibilities have defanged the film, it has lost much of its ability to create fear.

Haxan is one of those classic films that are more “important” than “good.” It is good, but for all of Benjamin Christensen’s visual acumen and creepy conjurations, it shows its age in all the places where the age shouldn’t matter. And in that, it becomes more of a historical curiosity than a resonant work of art.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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