Judge Mike Pinsky shreds a page from the Necronomicon discussing this odd pseudo-documentary about paganism and witchcraft.
"One shouldn't think everything about magic was nonsense."—Benjamin Christensen
How would the devil speak? Director Benjamin Christensen, clad in a white lab coat, asks this very question in 1941, in a scratchy eight-minute introduction to his 1922 masterpiece. He is quite familiar with the devil in two ways. First, he has played the part himself, albeit only on screen under heavy makeup. In spite of this, he says he has no answer for another reason, that Häxan's silences are crucial to the film. After all, how might the devil speak in a world where proper discourse forbids the impossible?
Indeed, in such a world, how could women speak? We have talked before about hysteria (check out the Deep Focus column from way back on the "History of Hysteria"—I'll be here when you return), and we might speak briefly of it again. In the discourse of hysteria, women's voices are supplanted by the scientific voice, the objective and rational structure that relegates women to the status of pure bodies. Or at least pure in the sense of mindless. In traditional hysterical discourse, women are controlled by bodily functions (in particular, ovarian function; hence the derivation of the word from "hystos," the Greek word for "womb"), surrendering rationality for instinct. This places them beyond language, as language is the tool of the rational, the scientific. By the time of Charcot and Freud, nearly 2,500 years after the ancient Greeks prepared the way, scientific discourse had reduced women to potential patients, already designated by biology (and flawed biology at that) to suffer from scrambled psyches. Thus, the language of science is already, in 1922, predisposed to ignore what women say. They are already condemned before they begin—all they can conceivably do is confess to what science already knows.
But Benjamin Christensen starts everyone off on an even playing field, even if he does not intend to do so. Häxan (The Witch) is silent: no one speaks. Only Christensen is in control, as we see his face staring back at us between the opening credits. He has crafted a cinematic essay, an exposition on the history of witchcraft that is really an exposition on power. Beginning with a well-researched overview of pre-Christian mythology, Häxan is really several films in one: more expository than a traditional narrative film, more personal than a traditional documentary. Perhaps we might see the film as a precursor to the "docudrama" of later years, but without most of the sentimental baggage that most of its descendants will show. Christensen was most decidedly a humanist (as Casper Tybjerg reminds us in his commentary track), believing that injustice was caused by the obsession with "Evil," rather than some palpable and distinct Evil itself. But Christensen, a failed medical student (much like the cynical French novelist Gustave Flaubert), could not escape seeing both victims and torturers through the same critical eye.
The second section of Häxan (taking up five of the film's seven "chapters"—it is structured as an essay) chronicles both the traditions of medieval witchcraft and the methods of the Inquisition in rooting out witches. This depiction of witchcraft, with its flying brooms and wild orgies with Satan (played with relish by Christensen, as we have already noted), is thick with detail and frightening, fulfilling all our expectations of the face of Evil. But it soon becomes clear that Christensen does not mean to show us what witches really are, but how they have been depicted in medieval culture.
Before I get any e-mails about Christensen's depiction: He does suggest that many so-called "witches" were condemned for practicing folk magic, but the film is not meant as a direct defense of what has now come to be called Wicca. This is mostly due to the fact that in spite of the claims of many practitioners of Wicca (and yes, I have close friends who are active in pagan circles), it is not an unbroken ancient religion, but rather a modern reinterpretation of various pagan traditions. Christensen is not interested in a history of authentic pagan religions, but how folk traditions fed the drive for power of the ruling elite—the medieval Church—by allowing the Church to mark such people as "other."
Cultural definitions—the taxonomies that shape our social identities with regard to gender, race, class, etc.—are invariably part of systems of power. To paraphrase Brother William, a former Inquisitor himself, in The Name of the Rose, scratch the heretic and you will find a leper underneath. Most of our modern institutions of separation—the hospital, the asylum, the prison—are recreations of the leper colony: designate an "improper" other, separate that other under a mask of objectivity, consolidate the social borders of the now "proper" community.
By the time Christensen reaches the final chapter of his film essay, in which he offers an overview of contemporary (that is, 1920s) mental illness, we see his point clearly. He is offering a retrospective diagnosis of the Middle Ages: Witches were not possessed by the Devil but by hysteria. Curiously, we see beyond even Christensen's assertion (and there is little argument that his certainty in Charcot and Freud make this the weakest section of the film): Witchcraft hysteria was really driven by power. Medieval women who asserted themselves outside the mainstream definitions of submissive femininity were marked as "witches" and destroyed by a system of power that maintained itself by defining otherness in the form of heresy. By Christensen's era, religion gave way to science, and a new form of otherness evolved: the female hysteric. In this way, Häxan becomes as much a document of the early history of psychology as it does the medieval depiction of witchcraft.
In a detailed commentary track, film scholar Casper Tybjerg covers Häxan's historical importance as an early embellishment of the documentary genre, as well as its importance as a social document of its time. Tybjerg moves systematically, discussing Christensen's background and obsession with scientific rationalism (although the image of him prancing as the Devil reminds us that he has a sense of humor too), some of the history of witchcraft persecution, and the film's long battle with censorship. Häxan is an anomaly in cinema history. A mild success when released, it was banned or severely edited in many countries. You can guess why: its anticlerical stance and "perverse" subject matter still makes it controversial, even after 80 years. While it was welcomed in some circles in its 1941 re-release (as noted above, Criterion includes Christensen's sound introduction to his original silent classic), Christensen's career was by that point pretty much over, and the obvious parallels between medieval witch hunts and the rise of fascism may have escaped him. Nevertheless, the film was profoundly influential on many directors (Tybjerg notes how Carl Dreyer borrowed some of Christensen's techniques).
After World War II, the film languished again in obscurity, only to be rediscovered by Brion Gysin in 1968. Gysin and friends reedited the film (adding a bizarre and freewheeling score featuring Jean-Luc Ponty), brought in Gysin's frequent collaborator William S. Burroughs to record voice-over narration to replace most of the intertitles (cutting the original running time to a brisk 76 minutes), and released the film as Witchcraft Through the Ages. Criterion includes the complete (if somewhat scratchy) 1968 film on this disc, although Tybjerg seems puzzled by its "loopiness" and cannot understand what drug-fueled surrealists might find interesting about a film that promotes scientific rationalism. Obviously, he is not very familiar with Burroughs's work. The cantankerous author was obsessed throughout his career with the delusion of power, and certainly relished the opportunity to show how the rhetoric of a "proper" institution like the medieval Church unravels under scrutiny.
Once again, Criterion has given a neglected and underappreciated masterpiece a chance to be rediscovered. Criterion has done an exceptional job, offering two complete versions of what Benjamin Christensen himself described as "a cultural history in moving pictures." While their restoration of Häxan is not without its flaws (the print contains many afterimages—part of the original print and the result of recorrected film speeds, and not Criterion's fault), they offer a complete cut of the original film with a newly recorded orchestral score (based on notes from the film's premiere) in 5.0 and 2.0, with a separate menu to access individual musical tracks. An expanded "Biblioteque Diabolique" presents Christensen's sources for the film: dozens of photographs, explanatory text, and an extensive bibliography. Altogether, this miniature textbook, an extension of Christensen's, provides an excellent overview of our cultural obsession with Evil and how it reflects our sense of social (especially gender) and cosmic order. A collection of production stills and four minutes of silent outtakes (test shots and behind-the-scenes scurrying) round out the extras.
Watching Christensen and crew silently prepare their visions of Hell and the Inquisition's hell on Earth, we are reminded again of the question that Christensen asked in 1941. How would the devil speak? Benjamin Christensen may have played that part on film, but by 1941, the voices of other devils murmured. As Christensen comments in that introduction on how under torture, many people in the Middle Ages gave up their friends and family as witches, we see the cycle come full circle. Hysteria is no mere academic exercise. The dangers of fascism lurk behind Christensen's vision. And whichever generation rediscovers Häxan must learn its lessons quickly, before those in power start planting stakes as they invariably do.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Alternative version: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968; 76 minutes)
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.