Wednesday, July 07, 2010

When the rationalist played Satan: a silent-film study of witches

When you’re a big fan of silent films – including those in the horror and fantasy genres – you learn to expect the unexpected; so many little-known treasures are constantly being restored and made available to contemporary viewers. But Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan (also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, or simply The Witches) was a genuine surprise, one of the most enigmatic and unusual movies I’ve seen in a long time. It made me want to rush out and tell people to watch it, even if they aren’t particularly interested in silent films, or in the dark subject matter of this one.

Apart from the obvious research and care that went into its making (the set design in particular is excellent), what makes Häxan so distinctive is its constantly changing tone – it shifts from an educational, documentary-style presentation to a fictional (but realist) narrative to outright fantasy, and I think this may reflect the dynamic personality of its writer-director.

Christensen comes across as an auteur long before the term was coined. In the film’s inter-titles he refers to himself in the first person, in the style of an author writing a narrative non-fiction book – he even “acknowledges” his research sources and the contributions of his technicians. As storyteller-director, his perspective is that of the rationalist, deeply sympathetic towards the millions of unfortunate women who were persecuted by medieval witch-hunts. In the titles as well as in a brief 1941 video introduction (included on the Criterion DVD), he discusses the categories of "witches", offers explanations for why witch-hunts took place and links occasional cases of mental illness (which could result in a woman being branded a witch) to “the modern, treatable ailment of hysteria”. (That the “modern” in this case refers to psychiatric theories and treatments that held sway in 1922 adds another layer for a viewer watching this film in the year 2010, but that’s a different discussion.)

But at the same time, Christensen’s contribution to Häxan as an actor is a deliciously over-the-top performance as Satan. Unlike many later movie depictions (examples: Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster, Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick), there’s nothing smooth or mannered about this Devil. He’s pure satyr, repulsive to look at, bare-chested, pot-bellied and lumpy, impatiently knocking on boudoir doors and enticing young women into his hairy arms even as they lie next to their dozing husbands, or tempting nuns to desecrate statues of the infant Jesus. And he waggles his forked tongue better than Amitabh Bachchan playing Babban in RGV ki Aag.

Now you may well ask, what is old Beelzebub doing prancing about thus in a movie dedicated to the debunking of superstitions? The answer lies in the free-flowing structure of Häxan. Christensen maintains the analytical, inquiring tone throughout, but he also gives us sequences where we are made privy to people’s delusions or fantasies (such as when an old woman, under extreme torture, “recalls” her
career in witchery, including riding on broomsticks through the night and participating in a devil’s feast), and the film usually – though not always – makes clear which scenes are meant to be objective reality and which ones are fevered dreams. Satan belongs to the fantasy sequences, and just before he makes his superb first appearance, leaping out at a fat monk who’s studying the Holy Book, there is a telling inter-title:
“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true. So it happens with witchcraft as with the Devil; people’s belief in him was so strong that he became real.”
It’s almost as if Christensen is wryly saying that primitive beliefs in devilry were so compelling that they forced him to change the nature of his film, because the only way to present those beliefs was to dive headlong into fantasy. However, I suspect he also worked the Devil in because he wanted to have some fun playing him!

The first 10-15 minutes of Häxan are made up of stills, including wood-cut drawings taken from medieval books. The film initially seems less concerned with witchcraft than with primitive beliefs in general: the notion that the earth was the centre of the universe, with an outer layer made up of fire, and the Almighty and his angels seated beyond; the Egyptian view of the world’s topography, with stars hanging down by cords from a sky made of iron; and finally, medieval notions of Hell, with pictures and mechanised depictions of demons energetically stoking flames beneath cauldrons.

The narrative section – and the first shift in tone – begins with a scene set in the “underground home of a sorceress, 1488”, and then moves on to other little vignettes: a woman seeking a “love potion” with which to seduce a fat monk; the “reading” of a chunk of lead to determine if a patient is the victim of sorcery; wizened old women being branded witches because they were “ugly or deformed”; pretty young women being branded witches because they had an inappropriate effect on young monks; the use of varied torture techniques and instruments.

For all the potential sensationalism in this material (and there are many shocking or gruesome scenes) and despite the farcical portrayal of Satan, Häxan is ultimately a mature, dignified film. The prevailing tone is that of pity for the victims of medieval prejudice. One gets a very strong sense of how the powerful prey on the weak,
often using religious authority as an excuse for the playing out of baser instincts - and of course it would be silly to believe that such exploitation doesn't take place in our own time. “Let’s not believe the Devil exists solely in the past,” says a title towards the end of the film, “Isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” (A clever dissolve connects a medieval “witch” handing out love potions with modern-day card-readers and crystal-ball readers selling prophecies to their customers.) At a time when many directors were using films either as overt propaganda or to confirm existing prejudices (as in D W Griffith’s landmark The Birth of a Nation, which cast the Ku Klux Klan as heroes), Häxan is an example of a movie that managed to be serious and enlightening even as it played about with the possibilities of film narrative.

DVD Extras

Apart from Christensen’s 1941 introduction, which I mentioned above, the Criterion DVD includes a shortened 1968 version of Häxan titled Witchcraft Through the Ages, set to a jazz score (!) and with narration by none other than William Burroughs, who tells us in his brilliantly deadpan, gravelly voice, that “belief in the Devil was so steadfast that many people declared they had seen and touched him in person, giving incredible descriptions of this horrid individual”. And that all the witches had to show their respect for Satan “by kissing his ass”. (The film’s original title has the more restrained “kissing his behind”.)

[A few earlier posts on silent films: The Passion of Joan of Arc (which, of course, covers similar ground to Häxan, though from a very different perspective), Nanook of the North, Tartuffe, Greed, Mizoguchi and the benshi, Robert Bloch and Lon Chaney]


  1. Enjoyed reading the review and am suitably tempted to watch the movie!

  2. Lovely piece (as usual), Jai, thanks!

    One of the best historical books, that goes into witchcraft,
    witch-hunting, and the "primordial" agrarian cults around which such
    practices thrived (and they weren't necessarily "evil" - but leave
    that aside for now) is by Carlo Ginzburg - the Night Battles. I read
    his other books as a history student in DU, one of the most
    fascinating writers ever. Pity here history isnt ever written like
    that, even academic tomes.