Hey, I get to write about something good for Shocktober this year! Yeah!
The first thing you need to know about Häxan is that there are apparently dozens of different cuts of this movie. I watched the 106 minute version Criterion made available on Hulu, which is I guess different from the 87 minute version you can buy from Criterion (NSFW: for some reason the screenshot Criterion used is a picture of a butt) or the 1968, William S. Burroughs-narrated version you can watch on YouTube. This is probably the case with any movie that has survived nearly 100 years, but I wanted to be absolutely clear that there’s a chance that those of you who’ve seen this may have seen more or less than I did, or the same stuff in a different context.
Häxan is a pseudo-documentary about witch hunts. It presents itself like an essay, complete with illustrations that the director points at with a pencil. Later this approach gives way to live recreations of typical witch-related events – like dance parties with demons. I’ve read that this movie was a passion project for Danish director Benjamin Christensen, who became inspired upon acquiring a copy of the “Malleus Maleficarum,” a 15th century treatise on the prosecution of witches. Christensen also plays the devil in this movie and it looks like he’s having a pretty good time.
Anyway, Häxan is divided into seven parts, the first of which is that lecture/PowerPoint presentation described above. It’s the story of mankind’s earliest superstitions, including some pretty sweet dioramas of how ancient cultures perceived the world. There’s a delightfully complicated world where the sky is held by giant metal beams and another with several different rings of existence. Did some ancient cultures really believe this? Who knows, it doesn’t really matter, and I’m not going to worry about that now or for most of this movie.
The next few parts try to show the supposed nonsense that witches got up to back in the day. It looks like a lot of fun, they dance with demons, get together to boil stuff, rub oils on each others backs, all that classic witch stuff you think about. Some of it is fairly graphic – on more than one occasion we are shown a bloody baby corpse that the witches use, and there are even a couple breasts and butts. That surprised me for a film from 1922, but hey, it’s Swedish. Plus the nudity is necessary to the plot, since apparently one of the things that witches had to do was kiss the devil’s ass, literally.
I don’t think any of this is scary and I’m not sure audiences back then were meant to either. The score I heard is somewhat jovial, and a lot of the high jinks have a certain dark comedy to them. I particularly enjoyed a scene involving a woman having her wishes made real, which in her case was waking up surrounded by money. As she excitedly piles up the thousands of coins surrounding her, they start dancing and then flying away. It’s a cool effect accomplished by playing some footage in reverse and using stop motion animation. We see other cool things too, like a scene of witches flying through the sky on brooms, which I imagine was quite thrilling back then. It still looks cool now.
Then it’s time to see the reality of a witch hunt in the middle ages. This is probably the part of the movie that struck a chord the most with me, as we are shown just how easily someone could be accused of being a witch and how quickly that can turn into an epidemic and a finally a massive body count. It begins with a dying man’s grieving family deciding that evil magic may be the cause of his illness. At just this moment, an old beggar barges in and asks for a meal. The man’s wife, being a good Christian, offers the woman a bowl of something, but as she watches her shovel food disgustingly into her mouth, she concludes she’s a witch. So the wife goes and gets some clergymen to arrest her, which they do.
Those holy men then start torturing the poor old woman until she finally admits to being a witch. She goes on to name some other witches, and soon the hunt is on for basically any woman in the town that wasn’t generally liked. Anyone who won’t admit to being a witch and can’t pass bizarre tests like crying on cue is subjected to pretty horrific torture – we’re shown some tools and techniques and in 2015 it still sounds uniquely brutal. Lots of smashing, burning, and cutting. In the end, the wife is also burned at the stake for being a witch. Her crime? When she went to the clergy originally, one of the men found her attractive. The others couldn’t beat the lust out of him, so they deduced she must have used magic.
The seventh part returns to the modern day to deliver Christensen’s thesis: that was some fucked up shit that for real happened a lot in our past. And that it still happens now. Many of the most witch-like behaviors that were explained by the devil’s influence back then could be diagnosed by science now (in 1922, everything was hysteria, still a little progress required). He shows some parallel scenes of modern women doing the same things that witches did, and ends on an extremely dark note: a confused kleptomaniac who has been institutionalized is led into a shower. Burning people at the stake, he says, has been replaced by “the mildly temperate shower of the clinic.” That’s some good stuff, and the empathy I felt for that poor woman was only slightly dulled by the fact that it was immediately followed by a card that said “Slut,” which is the unfortunate Swedish word for “The End.”