I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history—the product of five years of study. In each of those years, I took at least one course on the Middle Ages.
The period was always great for stories. That’s why we loved it. Kings and queens, tyrannical churchmen, gruesome wars, plagues and hysteria—it was a tapestry woven, it seemed, of humanity’s best and worst capacities. On a bad day, when we were overtired, overworked, or just hungover, these outsized tales kept us focused. I remember them still.
But my best instructors weren’t satisfied with this kind of thing. They encouraged us to look beyond the extremes of the period. Consider the people themselves, they said. Think of their daily lives; the stresses they were under. Ask yourself if you’d be any different, in their position.
Have some sympathy, is what the instructors meant.
I like to think we developed some. At least, we developed the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a while, which is important for any History student. But the intrigue of the period remained elsewhere. For even the driest discourse on the Middle Ages is usually illustrated with art from the time: stiff, pale, even corpse-like figures; frantic, crowded scenes, and jumbled perspective. And bizarre variations of the Devil—his bottomless army of the damned milling up from the depths of Hell to corrupt humanity. Our instructors had to impose the mundane upon this. It was difficult.I thought about their efforts constantly while watching Häxan. It would have been hard not to, because Häxan, too, is a pedagogical exercise.
You may think this film is about witchcraft, but it’s really not. It’s about what makes people believe in witchcraft. No spell cast in Häxan has any real power. None of the copious special effects are presented as anything more than the fevered imaginings of troubled souls. Its devils and other monsters look the way superstitious people described them back then, but never is it suggested they really existed. And we are reminded, with greater force as the film goes on, that the problems that led to witchcraft and burnings in 1488 have not disappeared. The witches of the 15th Century are the homeless; the ostracized; and the institutionalized today.
Have some sympathy for them too, says Häxan’s director, and screenwriter, Benjamin Christensen. The Dane researched witchcraft and psychology for two years before starting work on the film.
Christensen's main narrative follows the dissolution of a household after one of its male members falls ill. A strange old woman, accused by the family of poisoning the man, is dragged away by the Inquisition, tortured, and forced to confess. In so doing, she names her enemies as witches too, including among them her accusers in the household. Then the Inquisition comes after them. Terror breeds persecution. This is our lesson.
Häxan doesn’t just teach by example, though; it literally lectures. The first quarter-hour of the movie is a slide show, depicting various woodcuts, paintings, drawings and sculptures from ancient cultures—tracing the history of witchcraft and contextualizing it within the belief systems of various peoples. It is so deliberately educational that we see a pencil move across the screen to point out details in the artwork. Were Häxan made today, this first 15 minutes would be a PowerPoint presentation. It functions the same way.
This opening vignette isn’t boring at all, nor are similar ones, occurring later in the film. But they are not what makes Häxan famous. This is:
Christensen filled Häxan with some of the rawest footage you’ll ever see in a silent film. Boozing, torture, naked bums; babies bleeding, crones pissing, an ogling Lucifer flicking his tongue at damsels wound in their bedsheets—Häxan has it all. In few films has the holy cross been stepped on or spat on more than this one. In few films has the Church seemed more grotesque. As a result, Häxan was censored or outright banned for decades.
Most of these scenes look theatrical to us now, by which I mean they don’t look real. But what does a ‘real’ demon look like anyway? Häxan’s midnight orgies are populated with creatures that resemble the ones we saw in images at the start of the film. They’re fantastical in the same way. If the scene of an old woman giving birth to a demon dog looks unconvincing, it shares that weakness with most of the art made in the Middle Ages. And we still find that art awfully compelling.
Häxan is also funny. The best of the lighter scenes concerns a love potion, through which a lonely lady hopes to bewitch a pious man of the church. The joke is not the potion, but the lady’s gross misrepresentation of the man. He is not pious; he’s an obese glutton who gobbles down everything she cooks and calls for more. She could’ve seduced him at any time; all she needed was the confidence that she couldn’t fail.
In the reactionary climate of the Middle Ages, now at such a safe distance, we find much to laugh at. And we find pathos, too. Toward the end of the film, when we shift from the flamboyant 15th Century to the dour early 20th, Christensen shows us a mentally-ill young woman—a kleptomaniac—apprehended in a department store. Is she so different from the witches of an earlier time? In terms of her treatment perhaps.
Christensen also reflects, via intertitles, on a conversation he had with one of the elderly ladies in his cast. One who, during a break from a scene in which her character was being tortured, informed him that she truly did believe in the Devil.
For its teachable moments as much as its titillation, Häxan is a film for the ages.
Where to find Häxan:
Häxan is available on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection.