“Centuries have passed and the Almighty of medieval times no longer sits in his tenth sphere. We no longer sit in church staring terrified at the frescoes of the devils. The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops. But isn’t superstition still rampant among us?”
I love both horror and documentaries, and they are both genres in which I could see myself creating a film myself. Häxan crosses both of these genres in one of the earliest documentaries, which confused and frustrated audiences upon its 1922 release. I think Häxan lays the groundwork for a lot of cool documentary/video essay techniques, and it reminds me of something like a History channel special today.
The movie is primarily concerned with how witches and other supernatural entities have been perceived in the past. There are a lot of neat images and works of art accompanied with well-researched narration to give the audience a sense of the terror that these forces elicited in the past, particularly in the Middle Ages which is the primary period of discussion for the movie. The film also gets into a lot of re-enactments with vibrant acting (and director Benjamin Christensen playing Satan himself) to present a few stories from the Medieval period about witches.
I elected to watch the Swedish Film Institute print of the movie. The shorter cut with William S. Burroughs narrating seems neat, but it’s probably not in the spirit of me “having seen” the movie. I’d like to see it eventually, along with the Criterion cut in a higher quality than the YouTube rip I watched. I think Häxan is about the visual experience more than its interspersed narratives, so the most high-definition version you can find would probably hold your attention even better. The title cards have some great content, but they do grow tedious and don’t really hold up as an artistic choice as with a film like Sunrise.
Häxan is really impressive as a piece of research, with Christensen citing various authorities on the subjects he discusses. There’s a clear fascination with the subject matter, and Christensen meticulously recreates scenarios with an impressive amount of detail. The movie was also very expensive, the most expensive Scandinavian film ever made at two million Swedish kronor. The entertainment value doesn’t hold up entirely, as could be predicted with a silent documentary from 1922, but there are always fun production details to look out for. It’s a movie where I spent a lot of time wondering how sets were constructed or why Christensen made certain decisions, so for an inquisitive film viewer, this isn’t a boring movie by any stretch.
This is a really fun work of both horror and history with a fascinating amount of force behind its production. I probably won’t return to Häxan any time soon, but it was a really neat watch nonetheless.
Films Left to Watch: 856