A 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film in the form of a semi-dramatised lecture, we had absolutely no idea what to expect of Häxan, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. And what a great surprise it was, as we discover an extraordinary, perceptive, original, bold, witty piece of work that details the history of witchcraft, visualises medieval beliefs in wild set-pieces, and draws interesting parallels with modern-day institutionalisation of “hysterical” women.
The projection was out of this world, a 2K 2007 restoration by the Swedish Film Institute with unimaginable clarity, sharpness and contrast. It was unbelievable to look at. (Thanks to Holly Cooper for finding the technical details out for us.) And the film is full of images that benefit from the restoration; Bosch-esque dramatisations of Satanic seductions, a Witches’ Sabbath, and unholy births of demonic creatures. It was the most expensive silent film to ever emerge from Scandinavia, and it shows. Though neither Mike nor José is an expert on horror, and indeed despite Häxan‘s fundamental differences from horror, in its imagery its possibly foundational influences on several subgenres of horror is palpable.
There’s a remarkably sceptical, anti-clerical theme that runs throughout the film. While not strictly atheist, Häxan says clearly from the start it will discuss what folks in the Middle Ages believed without asking us to buy into it. Indeed, there’s a frankly dismissive tone: “Of course, this is all nonsense”, the film effectively says, “but let’s learn about it anyway, shall we?” This set-up, while unexpected, arguably creates a lack of direction and drive until the final chapter, in which we are brought into the modern day (of 1921) and Christensen draws direct links between the superstitions of old and what real-life events, phenomena and afflictions they may have been responding to. And that would be interesting, but the film goes further, talking about this all as not just a difference in the understanding of the physical world between people of different eras, but as a continuum of oppression and abuse of women. Burning at the stake, Christensen says, has been replaced by the mild shower of the mental institution, but how much progress does that really represent? Women are now considered to be ill or troubled rather than in league with the Devil, but is the difference between murdering and imprisoning them really so great? Not only does it pose these insightful and powerful questions, it even proposes things as specific as institutional sexual abuse keeping women in an inescapable cycle of incarceration and continued abuse; assaulted by the very men charged with running the system that’s supposed to protect them, they are left permanent victims, unable to plead their cases, for anything they say will be considered symptomatic of their hysteria, just as women on trial for witchcraft had no escape from torture and murder in a system that was ostensibly just.
We could go on. And in the podcast, we do. The 2007 SFI restoration we saw is available through Criterion, and you owe it to yourself to see it – it’s available on DVD and digitally on Amazon and iTunes, though the Blu-Ray appears to be available only in North America, unfortunately. Brilliant film.
(P.S. José would like to apologise for saying silent films ran at 8 frames per second, when they actually had frame rates that varied from 16-24 fps and often changed due to being hand-cranked.)
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.