Thursday, 24 December 2015

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922). This Swedish-Danish documentary is a famous, possibly infamous, examination of witchcraft throughout history, focusing in detail upon the rituals of its practitioners as well as the equally macabre techniques of the church persecutors who would expose and punish them. Benjamin Christensen was a Danish actor whose interest in the occult led him to make the film. It exists in both a 76-minute and 104-minute version. The only notable difference I could discern in comparing the longer version is a greater emphasis on torture instruments and the possessed frolicking of nuns (Ken Russell had seen this before making THE DEVILS?),

HAXAN is highly-entertaining and wryly amusing at time, not necessarily on purpose. It is largely made up of dramatized scenes to illustrate the Middle Ages setting of much of the evidence, but is given documentary credibility in the 1968 release by a relaxed narration from William Burroughs (himself no stranger to controversy) coupled with a slightly anachronistic free-form jazz score, heavy on the percussion.

The dramatic sequences are well-made with strong production values. Unsurprisingly it was the most expensive silent film in Swedish history. We see witches going about their foul brewing, concocting a love potion for a maid to encourage a clergyman: “Boiled at midnight with a pigeon’s heart and cat shit”. From such unpromising material, the fat friar is soon pursuing the servant girl in amorous frenzy around the woods.

There is heavy and diverting use of various types of special effects in the film – from a striking stop-motion devil-bird pecking through a wooden door, double-exposure photography to show witches riding their broomsticks through the sky, a splendid horned devil make-up for Christensen himself as Beelzebub and even a sequence showing one alleged witch giving birth to two unsavoury gargoyles.
The early scenes focus mostly on contemporary engravings and paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The lion’s share of the later structure is given over to acted sequences of the inquisitions of suspected witches and the behaviour of the monks and nuns. We get to witness the kind of self-serving logic during interrogation so lovingly spoofed in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL - the water-test- whereby a woman’s purity is tested by taking her out to the deepest part of the lake. If she floats, she is a witch. If she sinks, she is innocent, God be praised. It begs the question of whether the ‘sinking’ is just that or akin to drowning but nevertheless is not as specious as the even worse methods of proving witchcraft on display.

We are shown close-ups of some of the horrendous torture instruments used to encourage a suspect’s memory, such as a spiked locked collar (with spikes on the inside too) as well as a fearsome set of tongs, perfect for loosening a confession, amongst others. After enduring instruments such as these, confessions would no doubt flow like sacramental wine, and with about as much veracity as a session of drinking it would produce. Mary, the Seamstress, a character put to the inquisition spills a torrent of beans and who can blame her?

If you think that such travesties of justice aren’t quite conclusive enough to win the case for the ‘true faith’ against the Devil, there is the application of another perverted level of self-supporting argument. A menacing monk threatens a suspect with a second front of attack: “In the name of the Trinity, if you are not a witch, shed tears”. Because she cannot cry instantly on command, behold, she must be one of Satan’s servants! If however she can, fear not, there is a ready explanation that still books her a fatal punishment. Beelzebub’s witches can induce fake tears by rubbing their eyes “with a malignant herb”. Yes indeed, when it comes to an innocent damsel betting against the House of God, just like in the casino, the House always wins. As if to compound the rigged game, there is a shot from a book engraving of a mob of inquisitors called ‘After the Interrogation’. You can tell it’s afterwards - the suspect lies dead on the floor.

To be fair, if such a thing is possible, we see that the monks are not just sadists. They are also masochists. In-house fears of possession within the monastery cause monks to beg each other to lash demons from their bodies. “Oh brother, why have you stopped?” pleads one clergyman, afraid that his awful resulting back scarring still isn’t protection enough. Over in the nunnery, the ladies aren’t faring much better, the nuns transformed into feverish frenzied subjects, flagellating themselves with spiked straps.

As the travelling band of witch-finders ride off in search of some more dubious profit, HAXAN then enters its last, least satisfying section where Christensen attempts to find parallels between modern maladies and psychoanalysis, and ancient witchcraft. His argument is confusing, positing something to do with the vulnerable potential victim of today giving themselves over to the unhealthy influence of famous artists and doctors in the same way as witchcraft suspects were easily led by inquisitors. He also mentions in passing that there is some link between sleep-walkers and those who are possessed, which is surely of no real help to those unfortunates plagued by somnambulism. Where I could feel an argument possibly made is a near-end scene where an esteemed clinical expert may be inducing in a potential patient the suggestion of a condition that results in her coincidental staying at his expensive resort – that water-tight logic again? “It’s as if a mysterious force were driving me to steal things in shops”, she recalls in wonder.

Nevertheless, overall HAXAN is well-worth seeing. It’s informative and ghoulishly entertaining for those with an interest in the field, even if many probably know much of what is recounted…

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