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Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

Director: Benjamin Christensen

(Criterion Collection; 1922/2001)

Bubble, Bubble Toil & Trouble

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For those of us who find the silent film addictive, satisfying that passion can be a difficult enterprise. Only the most famous silent features have appeared on either video or DVD. Only some museums and specialty theaters show pre-sound pictures, and domestic films are featured far more often at these specialty screenings in the U.S. than foreign films. Except for international war-horses like Potemkin or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a great number of important silent films from other cultures are available only available as references in history books.


This point was reinforced several years ago when the film scholar Kevin Brownlow produced a television series on the history of European silent film. Much of the material Brownlow presented was a revelation, for access to work by figures like Mauritz Stiller and Victor Seastrom of Norway or the Frenchmen Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier is hard to come by. Brownlow’s series reminds that there are so many “forgotten” pictures to see and so few opportunities to do so.


One of the most remarkable figures of the silent cinema, whose work is more or less inaccessible, is the Dane Benjamin Christensen {1879-1959). His first two films, The Mysterious X (1913) and Night Of Revenge (1915), are considered amongst the most innovative work of their time. Christensen’s use of lighting and staging took full advantage of the medium, particularly the manner in which not only space but also character are conveyed through contrasting illumination and darkness. The narratives might have been melodramatic, but the acting stood out with a kind of naturalism far in advance of the exaggerated hand-wringing many people associate with silent film.


At the time of their release, both of Christensen’s first films played successfully in the United States, and the director accompanied them abroad. The opportunities he observed in America, to work with major stars and have access to state of the art technology, were exceedingly attractive. For these and other reasons, Christensen moved in the mid-1920s, joining the extensive immigrant community in Hollywood. He quickly signed with MGM and completed two feature films. The first, The Devil’s Circus (1926), starring Norma Shearer, is a tiresome melodrama about the Big Top, while the second, a Lon Chaney vehicle, Mockery (1927), is a vibrant historical piece set in post-revolutionary Russia.


Christensen then joined up with First National, later to merge with Warner Brothers, and created a quartet of pictures that combine comedy and horror. Only one survives, Seven Footprints To Satan (1929), a wild and woolly concoction fusing devil worship, menacing dwarves and marauding gorillas that is great fun and a stylistic tour de force. The director returned to Europe as sound technology took over the industry, and though he then made several features in his native language, most of the important work of his career was behind him.


The major film of Christensen’s later career, however, and one that bears a relationship to the horror genre, is Haxan, a.k.a. Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). Haxan is a documentary grounded in extensive research about the history of witches in Western culture. The director said of to this work, that it is “a cultural history lecture in moving pictures,” and that “[t]he goal has not only been to describe the witch trials as simply external events but through cultural history to throw light on the psychological causes of these witch trials by demonstrating their connections with certain abnormalities of the human psyche, abnormalities which have existed throughout history and still exist in our own midst.”


Newly reissued in stunning condition as part of the Criterion Collection, the subject matter of Haxan is as extraordinary as Christensen’s treatment of it. The picture stages representative scenes from the history of witchcraft that illustrate how women specifically have exercised the social and cultural power they were otherwise denied through magic, then suffered persecution, even death, for those actions. These women’s fate many years ago is paralleled in a final sequence set in the present day, in which a woman is entrapped for kleptomania, diagnosed, labeled and “properly” dealt with, much as witches were, for her “deviant” actions.


The tone and approach towards witchcraft Christensen takes in Haxan is enacted in a variety of forms. At first, the film comes across as quite literally an illustrated lecture, with an off-screen pointer directing our attention to period documents and visual images. Later, it becomes comic, as in the scenes where the director himself portrays the devil as a tongue-wagging, overweight figure. Much of the picture, however, is pointedly critical of historical trends in the treatment of powerful women, particularly when it depicts the persecution of witches/women in the medieval period. In one scene, ominous shadows crisscross the screen as adamant clergymen condemn an innocent old woman, and proceed to torment her withering body in order to exorcise her “sins.”


The fact the Christensen made Haxan as a documentary is notable for two important reasons. First, all of his earlier features were based on fictional narratives. Second, the genre of the documentary had itself only barely come into existence. Robert Flaherty, dubbed the father of the documentary, had released his first picture, Nanook of the North, just a year before. Audiences had admittedly been accustomed to the non-fictional rendering of reality by filmmakers for some time, going back to earliest days of the medium when the Lumiere brothers of France took their cameras out into the streets. However, it was only when individuals like Flaherty and Christensen began to conceive of how factual information could be rendered into a feature-length format that the genre took hold.


The Danish creator understood that conveying information about actual events or abstract ideas could accommodate any number of modes of communication. The dazzling manner in which Haxan shifts from illustrated lecture to historical reenactment to special effects shots of witches on their broomsticks to modern-dress drama pointed to ways the documentary format could be used that others would not draw on until years into the future. In addition, the visual design of Haxan builds upon Christensen’s earlier manipulation of space, light and environment.


Quite unlike any film then or now, Haxan expands one’s understanding of its subject as well as one’s sense of what film, particularly documentary film, can accomplish. It reminds us as well that when Haxan was released, the parameters of the genre were just forming. Combining fact and fantasy, realism and exaggeration, comedy and tragedy did not seem out of place then, as it might to “traditionalists” today. Clearly, Christensen understood that educating an audience about a complex subject could also be entertaining, even frightening.


Criterion’s re-release of Haxan possesses all the company’s customary attention to detail and then some. The print is a pristine transfer from the Swedish Film Institute’s library. Titles have been newly translated, and the musical accompaniment is drawn from the score performed at the original Danish premiere in 1922. Extras include a thoughtful but never fussy commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg; Christensen’s spoken introduction to the film’s 1941 re-release; and a set of out takes from the original filming. In addition, a second print of the picture is included; the 1968 version narrated by William Burroughs and accompanied by a vigorous but not altogether appropriate jazz score. Either way, one cannot help but recognize how one-of-a-kind Haxan is, a genre-defying, technologically inspired, intellectually sophisticated examination of a subject that the cinema typically has treated as little more than fodder for juvenile fantasy.

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