Häxan (Christensen, 1922)

Häxan is one wickedly innovative silent film, and I mean that in a good way. In an era when showing the slightest hint of skin was considered scandalous, director Benjamin Christensen has a few nude women appear in his film while he’s half-naked himself, appearing in several scenes as a horned (and horny) Satan with a flickering tongue and a taunting smirk. Oh yes. Did I mention we have people trampling on crosses, a nun stabbing sacramental bread (while others go insane), and an old woman being tortured as a witch? Mind you, none of this is as graphic as I make it sound, but anyone watching an uncensored version in 1922 was sure to have had an apoplectic fit. Häxan is sacrilegious, hypersexual, gruesome, and quite anti-patriarchal for its time, which is why much of it holds up today.

And it’s so playful! The first fifteen or so minutes is framed like a dry university lecture about the origins of witchcraft. Christensen films some pictures and woodcuts from old texts, piles on the intertitles, and even uses a pointer to guide our eyes to what he wants us to see. A primitive form of documentary, yet quite stilted. You’re primed for the worst. But then, from the second part onward, he moves away from still images and recreates the Middle Ages for us with his troupe of actors. Suddenly, Christensen drums up the wantonness of the piece and turns it into a saga of misogyny and terror, with woman after woman being cruelly and callously treated by men in high positions. Oh, and there’s an incredibly trippy dramatization of a Witches’ Sabbath that must be seen to be believed.

The only part that hasn’t aged well is the final one, in which Christensen claims that the inexplicable behaviour of so-called “witches” was due to symptoms of female hysteria. Obviously, this is nonsense and we know it right away. But the film isn’t derailed by it, interestingly enough, because in the subtext is a plea for us to understand mental illness, and not demonize it. The point is not that women were “witches” in the past because they were mentally ill—the point is that mental illness is, and has always been, a debilitating stigma that has wrongly caused endless amounts of suffering. That hasn’t changed even today. So, in a strange way, an anachronistic viewpoint somehow rights itself in the end, and this fascinating look into superstition and folklore retains its powerful, all-consuming hold.