HÄXAN - WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES
KISSING THE DEVIL’S ASS
Häxan is a vivid – but silent - exploration of witchcraft through the ages, from
pioneer Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen. Fact and fantasy blend in this
bizarre and atmospheric docu-drama, exposing imagined rituals like witches
kissing the devil’s ass. A groundbreaking, visually stunning journey into the
superstitious labyrinth that was the breeding ground for concepts of witchcraft.
Andrew L. Urban reports.
Whenever primitive man is faced with something incomprehensible, the explanation
is always: witchcraft and evil spirits – so states one of the first title cards
in this unique film. Benjamin Christensen (a suitable name for someone exploring
witchcraft) clearly had a sophisticated mind, since his proposition, as argued
in the film, is that in our ignorance, mankind has attributed evil to those who
were merely mentally ill.
Christensen’s endeavour seems cinematically clunky at first; title cards between
illustrative images and some dramatised scenes. But this technique gives way to
more sophisticated filmmaking. And there are two extraordinary aspects to the
film: first, this illustrated lecture tackles one of mankind’s most obstinate
weaknesses – the demonisation of anyone ‘different’. Secondly, it was made when
cinema was barely a toddler, and using it for the enlightenment of audiences
seems to me to be an inspired step.
After about 10 minutes (Part 1) Christensen delivers the first dramatisation:
it’s a witches hovel in 1488. Karna the witch is requested by a client to
prepare a love potion for a monk. If there is any doubt that this is
Christensen’s sense of humour, the doubts are dispelled in the next scene, when
we see the buxom wench serve a meal to the object of her affections (a rotund
old fart of a monk) – and the potion takes instant effect. He smiles at her –and
she’s soon back at Karna, asking for something stronger. This time, the
disgusting old monk chases her round the table, into the woods and back inside
the house for a pash.
A handful of early special/optical effects (laboriously created – no wonder it
took him two years to complete) add to the film’s enjoyment. But the film’s
seriousness of purpose is also evident. We see, in a recreation of a Middle Ages
witchhunt, the power of superstition and how, out of ignorance, the Christian
world inflicted such misery on so many, for so little.
The silence of the film exerts its own intensity on the viewer, and turns us
inwards, to contemplate what we see. Christensen didn’t set out intentionally to
work us over like this, but it’s a curious thing that silence can be so powerful
as part of the language of film.
Published June 28, 2007
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Premiere Screening, World Movies Channel :
8:30pm Tuesday July 3, 2007
Director: Benjamin Christensen (1879 – 1959)
Documentary (silent) Denmark/Sweden (1919 -1921)
Repeat: 12.15pm Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Encore screening: 7pm Sunday July 8, 2007
Repeat: 11.25am Monday July 9, 2007
Häxan is featured in the book ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’