Saturday, May 2, 2015

#206: Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

Mixing fiction, essay, and documentary, the Danish film Häxan is a visually sophisticated, surprisingly modern, tonally varied indictment of religious superstition and sexual repression that went on to influence the Surrealists and build a cult reputation in its sporadic appearances in the ensuing century. Criterion put it out on DVD a few years ago, paired with a 1968 re-edit by hipster British producer/experimental filmmaker Antony Balch that cut twenty minutes and added a William S. Burroughs narration and an avant-garde jazz score, but I'll be talking about the 1922 original here.
Writer/director Benjamin Christensen, a former opera singer, begins the film with several minutes on the history of superstition, particularly witchcraft, sorcery, and the location of the Earth within the universe. This overview is accompanied by historical illustrations depicting these beliefs. The opening scene is followed by a series of vignettes that act as a guided tour of occult superstition from the Middle Ages to the early 1920s. Christensen presents this material with humor, detail, visual invention, sadness, genuine outrage, plenty of psychosexual weirdness, and Bosch-inspired tableaux of costumed demons, animals, and monsters, with Christensen clearly having a lot of fun as the perpetually horny Satan.
We get hunchbacked old women making love potions, black masses, demonic possession, witchcraft, frenzied nuns, and the temptations of Satan, but we also get a surprisingly forward-thinking indictment of religious institutions punishing women because the men in charge are terrified of their own sexual desires. The repression of these desires and the shame and fear that go along with this repression then manifest in violent, perverse ways in the institutional punishments of the witch trials and the Inquisition. These "pious" monks, witchfinders, and church leaders are finding socially acceptable outlets for their own sexual kinks, destroying the lives of innocent women in the process.
This is a surprising thesis for a 1922 film, and it's even more surprisingly handled with a modern sense of humor that comes from genuine anger at the sexism inherent in much superstition and a healthy acceptance of sexuality and sexual desire. (S&M aficionados in particular should enjoy this movie.) Christensen's images and writing only reveal a dated sensibility when he theorizes that women determined to be witches in the Middle Ages were most likely merely suffering from "female hysteria," though it's unclear in these 1920s-set scenes whether Christensen is mocking the idea of "female hysteria" or whether he actually believes in it.
Christensen takes full advantage of his budget, the largest ever for a Danish film at the time, with every frame of Häxan packed with detail, incredible costumes and set design, and visual invention. It's a gorgeous film to look at and experience, and I bet it looks amazing on a big screen. Only in fleeting moments does this feel like a film that is almost a century old, and it's no wonder the Surrealists and Burroughs and Balch took to it.
Aside from the scattered dated moments, I loved this movie. If you're into beautiful, weird, perverse, occult, timeless filmmaking, check it out.

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