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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Häxan

Director: Benjamin Christensen
Country: Denmark
Year: 1922

Background

Benjamin Christensen was born in Denmark (That is what “Danish” means, right? A citizen of Denmark? Couldn’t they come up with a less confusing derivation than that? Denmarkians, perhaps? Denmarkites?) in 1879. His Wikipedia article is only four lines long, so we’re kickin’ it freestyle it this week. In the picture below, Christensen is on the left. At the right? Lon Chaney.

In 1902, he began a career as a professional opera singer. In 1913, he released his first film, Det Hemmeligheds fulde X (The Mysterious X), doing triple duty as writer, director and star. The story of The Mysterious X was nothing groundbreaking: a pulpy spy yarn about an accused traitor. The film itself, however, won accolades for its remarkable visual style and artistic ambition. Christensen was hailed as the premier experimenter of Danish cinema, a sort of Danish D.W. Griffith.

Carl Theodor Dreyer characterized Christensen as “a man who knew exactly what he wanted and who pursued his goal with uncompromising stubbornness.”

Regarding the Film Director, Christensen said that “like any other artist he should reveal his own individuality in his own work.” As a student of film history, you may recognize this as a nice encapsulation of the “auteur theory” espoused later by Truffaut and others.

Today, Christensen is best known as the writer and director of this week’s 1922 film, Häxan (The Witch). He also gave himself the best role: Satan. Häxan is an ostensibly scientific, but also lurid and comic, history of satanic practices and the church’s terrible punishment of those who would dare kiss the greasy buttocks of the Horned One. Though Häxan was widely acclaimed, its graphic depictions of grave-robbing, organ-stealing, devil-copulation, and urine-throwing resulted in plenty of pulpit-pounding condemnation and legal trouble.

Christensen (who, according to Wikipedia, also went by the names “Benjmain Christie” and “Richard Bee”) was then invited to work in Berlin, where he directed three films. He also acted in one notable film while in Berlin, playing the ambiguously gay “Master” in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1924 film, Mikaël (aka Chained).

From 1926 to 1929, Christensen lived and worked in Hollywood, directing such now-forgotten films as The Haunted House and The House of Horrors. Before the outbreak of WWII, he returned to Denmark, where he directed several films tackling “hot-button” social issues such as divorce and abortion.

For the last 17 years of his life, Benjamin Christensen managed a small movie theater in the suburbs of Copenhagen. He died in April 1959.

Synopsis

Full Title, per the titlecard: The Witch – A presentation from a cultural and historical point of view, in 7 chapters of moving pictures.

The film opens with a scary man’s face, which I’ll assume is Benjamin Christensen, the director.

“Let us look into the history of mysticism and try to explain the mysterious chapter known as The Witch…” we are invited by an intertitle, and away we go. The first part of the film is basically an educational slide show presented by Christensen, on the history of belief in evil spirits; lots of ancient woodcuts and paintings depicting devils and witches and the sinful suffering in hell, with the occasional intrusion of Christensen’s pointing stick, focusing our attention on an important detail: “See how the demon is devouring the sinner’s entrails…” etc. He also displays a sort of 3D Popup Eternal Torment Funbook for our edification. The entire film is shot in black and white, but then tinted either red or blue, for reasons that remain unclear. This first part is interesting if you’re into this sort of thing, but I did find myself thinking: “Is the whole film gonna be like this?”

Luckily for you and me, Christensen jams it into delirious, demonic overdrive in Chapters 2 through 7, which are live-action recreations of satanic rites, homicidal knife-wielding nuns, urine-throwing, desecration of holy icons, possessed women kissing the buttocks of Beelzebub, the liberal application of both Witch Powder and Witch Ointment, the Horned One bursting forth from an upright piano, and urine throwing. Did I say urine-throwing twice? Let me say it once more, because it cannot be stressed enough: Urine-throwing.

Häxan has pretensions of scientific inquiry, offering “modern” (circa 1922) psychiatric explanations for the behavior of accused witches, clucking its tongue audibly at the primitive superstitions of ye olden tymes, but at its heart, it’s an exploitation film. You can almost hear the narrator for the trailer: “Your skin will CRAWL as you witness for the FIRST TIME the PERVERSE RITES of satanic NUNS! SEE! The horrifying implements of TORTURE used by the SADISTIC priests of the INQUISITION! SCREAM! As the LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD demands his sickening payment in the FLESH of VIRGINS! CHILDREN ABSOLUTELY NOT ADMITTED!”

There is so much weirdness in this week’s film that I gave up on a regular synopsis. Instead, I’ve simply included the text of my favorite title cards…

When primitive man is confronted with something incomprehensible, the explanation is always sorcery and evil spirits (ed. note: or God)

The belief in evil spirits, sorcery and witchcraft (ed. note: and God) is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe…

Observe the eagerness with which the devils tend to the fire under the cauldrons!

The floating figure is a devil coming to rescue the witch

In this image a witch is milking an axe handle

In the following image a witch has bewitched a man’s shoe

Witches usually meet in councils. After a meeting they might, for example, sneak into a barn and bewitch a cow.

Notice how the sick person is laying naked in bed

It was generally believed that the witches were naked when, at night, during the so-called “Witches’ Sabbath” they danced with the devils

Women who wished to participate would seek out a sorcerer, who would smear their backs with “Witch Ointment”

First they desecrate the Holy Cross, then the devil gives each one a Devil Name

All witches had to show respect to the Devil by kissing his behind

We go now to the underground cave of a sorceress…

“Ugh! What a stench! The thief’s body has been hanging too long on the gallows!”

“When such a thief’s finger is too dried out, it can no longer lend the brew any healing power.”

“Karna, can you perchance get me a love potion that has power over a pious man of the church?”

“Here, young maiden, take a potion of cat feces and dove hearts boiled in the moonlight.”

“Hold your coin, maiden! First smell my ointment!”

“O Holy Mother forgive us, for cutting open a dead person’s body with a knife.”

“Damned woman! You shall not lie here and bewitch the legs of honest people!”

As it was with witchcraft, so it was with the Devil. (ed. note: and God) People believed in him so strongly that he became real.

Is it from the eternal fright of the pyre that you get drunk every night, Old Woman of the Middle Ages?

High up in the air is Apelone’s dream castle, and there the Devil will fulfill all of her secret wishes

If she floats, she will be pulled up and burned. If she sinks, the judges thank God for her innocence.

“My husband could not have been struck by dizziness so suddenly, unless a sorceress had bewitched him!”

“The power of lead will soon reveal it!”

“Jesus’ Holy Cross and Wounds! I did not hear you come, Maria the Weaver!”

“The youngest servant of the Inquisition may not exchange words with a maiden.”

“Let’s go, young men, before her feet are lifted, so that the evil witch won’t turn us all into mice!”

“Now you can have a scalding death! Just what you deserve, you damned Mistress of the Devil! ”

Two “honest” matrons change the witch in jail, so that she will not wear witch powder.

“Does she see this length of consecrated wax as Corpus Christi?”

“Well, Rasmus the Executioner! Let now the evil witch’s body sting!”

“Oh Learned Men! I confess that I have given birth to many children fathered by the Devil!”

“Trina has smeared me with Witch Ointment!”

“And a meal of toads and unchristened children was cooked by Karna!”

“And Elsa, who kicked me some time ago, shall also burn at the stake.”

During the Witchcraft Era, it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty, either.

“Bare your body, brother! I’ll whip your sinful body and your poor soul into faith healing!”

“In the name of the Holy Trinity, if you are not a witch, you shall now shed tears! See for yourself! You cannot shed tears, because you are allied with the Evil One!”

“Why do you taunt me, monk?”

“Silly boy! Do you not know that witches smear themselves with spittle, so that we might believe it to be tears?”

The witch madness, like a spiritual plague, ravages wherever these judges go.

Many women confess that – transformed into cats – they soiled the altar during the night…

For each knot, a pregnancy is destroyed. And the happiness of a whole house could be ruined with witch hair and metal crosses.

You and I would also confess mysterious talents under the use of such tools, isn’t that so?

One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew… I will not reveal the terrible confessions I extracted after only one minute

…these unhappy women wrote down with touching simplicity how the Devil penetrated the convent.

“Sister Cecilia is conniving with the Evil One!”

How must these religious women have suffered, before their nerves abandoned them and insanity broke out?

Like a witch forced by the devil, this woman – both when sleeping and awake – gives way to a mysterious craving to strike matches.

The hysterical person will undoubtedly say that these celebrities come to her through the wall or window.

“No, Doctor, I do not feel you touching my back at all.”

“It is as I feared; your daughter suffers from hysteria.”

Poor little hysterical witch!

Centuries have passed and the Almighty of Medieval Times no longer sits in his Tenth Sphere… we no longer sit in church, terrified of the devils in the frescoes. The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops. But isn’t superstition still rampant among us?

We no longer burn our old and poor, but do they not often suffer bitterly?

And the little woman whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, is she not still a riddle for us?

What I Liked

Did you READ those quotes above? Did I MENTION the urine-throwing?

The special effects are ingenious (I love the coven of witches flying over the town), the acting is suitably hysterical, and the chapters are cleverly interwoven. Some of the cinematography is pretty fantastic, for a film made in the early 20’s. Some of the scenes where the Devil (played by the director!) appears are genuinely creepy.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

This is a silent film, so the folks at Janus put together a soundtrack of classical music (including selections by Schubert, Wagner, Bruch, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Gluck, and Beethoven) and tacked it on. Apparently, this is a pretty close approximation of the soundtrack used during the film’s premiere, but I found it irritating. Sometimes the music fits, and sometimes it is wildly inappropriate. Worse, the soundtrack never ends! If I remember correctly, there was not one moment of silence, and that became somewhat grating.

Some scenes – particularly those that take place in hell and in the sorceress’ cave – are so dark that it’s a bit difficult to tell what is going on.

Despite all of the satanic rites and gratuitous nudity, I did start to feel a bit bored of it all near the end. I attribute this more to a modern filmgoer’s impatience with primitive film technique than to anything lacking in the film. Still I would have enjoyed it more if it was about 20 minutes shorter.

Should You See It?

This is the first film in this set that found me regularly laughing out loud in amazement and saying, “Did I REALLY just see two witches squatting to urinate in buckets, so that they could toss the Satanic Whizz on the doorway of an enemy? My goodness.” If that description sounds like a movie you’d enjoy, Häxan contains this scene and much, much more besides.

If you have the patience for a silent film, and you are interested in the history of witchcraft or the Inquisition or the depiction of these subjects in exploitation/horror films, I heartily recommend Häxan.

For a witch-tastic double feature, follow it up with Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price.

Next: Ikiru

5 Comments

  1. BTW, Jason, you captured the most excellent of screen shots for this review. Bravo!

  2. I watched Haxan with my boyfriend, Rick, and his 16-year-old son Phillip. We were amazed and amused by many of the images. I understand that the movie was supposed to enlighten us about the plight of those accused of witchcraft in medieval times, and I believe that the humor we found in the movie was unintentional. But that made it even funnier!

    Being able to see snippets of what life was like decades ago is still one of the things I love most about the Janus Collection films. This film presented medieval life from a 1920’s European point of view. It’s hard to know how accurate the depictions are, but I think they might be closer to the truth than the images that we would create today, almost 100 years later.

    The sepia tone of the footage of the “witches at work” was quite lovely. It lent an air of safety and comfort to their shop, versus the cold black and white filming of the other segments in this documentary showing the consequences of being accused of being a witch, or being a kleptomaniac. The dead things hanging up in the witches’ shop were creepy, but the warm color of the film made them somehow less so.

    We loved the bit about the bundle of sticks being brought into the witches’ shop. Phillip was ad-libbing quite a bit throughout the movie, and he quipped, in his best gruff old lady witch voice, “Ahhh, thank you for these nice sticks! I needed these sticks. I’ve been looking for them!” or something along those lines. So it was a nice little twist to find out, Eek!, that there were dead body parts in amongst the sticks.

    I was surprised at the (non-frontal) nudity and the risque images. From a 1920’s European point of view, I don’t know how shocking, or not, the nudity and suggestive images may have been. But from a 1920’s American point of view, I imagine that this film would not have been shown other than in a pornographic context. Even as a “documentary” with a scientific slant, I can’t think that this film would have been shown in America.

    One subtle touch that I liked was being led to believe that the more senior priest/monk was getting an eyeful of the front of the half-nude elderly witch, when she was being given the poke-her-back test. (Sheesh! I can’t come up with anything else. Sorry!) This has to do with a physical phenomenon whereby areas of the back become desensitized. We “learn” from the documentary that this has been seen in women who become hysterical. Apparently this test was used in medieval times to help prove whether someone was a witch. So this poor old woman is nude from the waist up, with her back exposed to the camera, and a second younger priest/monk is conducting the test by poking her back with a pencil-like stick. She is facing the senior monk, who is talking to her. So it looks like her front is exposed to the senior monk. Then, when she turns toward the camera, we see that all this time, she was holding enough of her garment up to cover herself. But the whole time until she turns, it sure doesn’t look that way from our view!

    Once again, I am wondering if the Monty Python troupe also borrowed from this movie for The Holy Grail. The sink-or-float test especially comes to mind. (To test whether someone is a witch, throw her in the water. If she floats, she’s a witch, and she’ll be killed. If she sinks, she’s not a witch, but she’s then a dead not-a-witch.)

    Not-so-subtle touches: How insanely funny was the butter-churning devil? No doubt about the references there. And actually showing the witches kissing Satan’s butt? How gross, and yet hilarious! The lack of “manners” while eating was quite gross, as were the couple of spitting-up scenes. But we couldn’t get enough of the totally unnecessary pointer/pencil that would come into view on the still pictures, to point out the obvious. We began to wait in anticipation for the pointer-man.

    I just can’t decide if this film was supposed to be: 1) a serious and shocking documentary, using film to educate us on the plight of those accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages; 2) an exercise in naughtiness under the guise of said documentary; 3) an all-out romp that was meant to be funny, as we found it to be; or 4) some combination of the above.

    I’m looking forward to reading Jason’s background and insight into this unique film, for further enlightenment!

    [Written after reading Jason and Matt’s comments:]

    Slut! I almost forgot how hard we laughed when that final word came on the screen!! (It does mean “the end” in Danish.)

    I didn’t get into a discussion of the movie’s obvious comments about the oppression of women through: 1) the accusation of witchcraft and subsequent punishment by religious leaders, and 2) the diagnosis of hysteria and subsequent treatment by doctors, for the reason that, well, it was obvious.

    The color changes were very interesting, and Rick and Phillip commented on how everything was either red or blue.

    Jason, I am so glad you took the time to list out in your review so many of the lines from the movie. I started laughing out loud all over again!

    Matt, I’m glad that you made a Monty Python connection, too!

    Yeah, the pee-toss was a new one on me. Wait–not on me–to me. Jesus’ Holy Cross and Wounds!

  3. Oh, yeah, gotta love the masturbation insinuation. I think I’m going to use that the next time I feel that particular urge…. “Honey, I’m going to go, uh, churn the butter.”

    In trying to recall (it’s a bit of a blur now) – I did not see many redeemable women in the film, certainly there was oppression and, certainly, there was oppression by the church but I didn’t get that there was a subtle (or not so subtle) implication that there were good women and bad women and some happened to be witches. Seems to me there were just, uh, witches (and/or wanting to be witches). Which, of course, could have been the church’s take at the time to control women (maybe I’m making your point here…): “All women want to be witches and kiss the devil’s ass and throw urine and ride brooms in the night, better control them with torture.”

    Of course, all the devils, if I recall right, were men – and you mention the sorceress…but that’s just my gut feeling.

    All-in-all, though, a stunning film for its time. Quality fantastic, loved the color wash for certain scenes – Criterion really out did itself (other than the tacked on music).

  4. So glad you also mentioned the urine-throwing!

    But, unless I completely misinterpreted the film (not without precedent, I’ll admit), most of the women being persecuted weren’t actually witches at all (except for the one crazy sorceress). I thought the film was pretty explicit that the accusations of witchcraft were used to control and oppress women (religion has a long history of this, I might add…), and that most of the “confessions” were obtained under duress and therefore meaningless.

    Weirdly, I read the position of the film as exactly the opposite of what you described; I thought Christensen was trying to – albeit with a moderate amount of gratuitous nudity and urine-throwing – expose the abuse of women by the church, and to document the ways in which belief in the supernatural (e.g. religion) can drive people crazy… not to accuse women of actually being witches.

    Regardless of whether the film was undermining or re-inscribing misogyny… what about that butter-churning Beelzebub, eh?

  5. Well, golly, I hope that Jason had a better time explaining “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” better than I’m about to attempt to.

    Well, well, well – what do we have here? Is it a 1922 documentary? Is it a “docu-drama” with re-enactments? Is it the silent version of “torture porn?” For some reason while I watched this I kept thinking: “I’ll bet David Lynch watches this movie A LOT.”

    The film is told in 7 parts and it basically starts out with some concepts about witchcraft in, I think, the Middle Ages. I could be wrong but we’re soon into what Monty Python made fun of in “Holy Grail:” “She turned me into a newt! If she sinks she’s a witch!” And as the little documentary rambled on for the first 10 minutes I wondered: “uh, are we going to get into anything with, you know, actors…acting?”

    Next thing we know we’re getting into some re-enactments of some, I assume, “true stories!” Okay, maybe not, but we’re seeing images of hell, people dying of witchcraft and curses and old ladies eating horribly.

    As I watched, all these things kind of blurred into the other. The fact that the director chose to use the same actors for many of the scenes added a bit to the confusion for me. Wasn’t she a witch? Wasn’t that guy in the earlier scene with the love potion?

    Then things got kind of, well, weird (as if they weren’t from the beginning). In 1922 Germany you can get away with a lot of stuff including nudity and devils masturbating (okay, not really – but it’s SURE IMPLIED). Oh, and lets not forget the ass-kissing scene. Yummy. Oh, and the scene with the witches peeing (?) into pots and splashing the urine on the door of “Martin the Writer” who ends up dying…THE VERY NEXT DAY!

    The stories involved revolved around, 1. A love potion. 2. Some guy sick and it’s a witch’s fault (and then, when she’s captured – she says all the other women are witches – after some early century “good-cop/bad-cop” questioning). 3. Some woman is a witch but a monk wants to have sex with her (while another monk wants her “making thunder out of water” spell) while the other monks try to capture both of them (?) or something, 4. Various torture devices – including a shot of one of the actresses willing to use a thumb-screw and the director saying something like: “I can’t tell you what she revealed to me.” 5. Scenes where the Devil is seducing young women. 6. Masturbating devils “churning butter.” 7. Then the director “talking” to the viewer about an older actress saying that the Devil shows up on her bed and then a scene with that. And then it kind of ends.

    SLUT! (no, seriously, that’s how the film ends – I’ll assume “Slut” is German for “OVER!”)

    What I liked:

    Above all the quality of the film and the different color tones was AMAZING.

    Some of the scenes were genuinely creepy and some of the special effect usage was done very well.

    There was a little bit of nudity (always a plus in my camp).

    What I didn’t like:

    The rest of it.

    I really did not like the whole undertone that women are bad witches. There’s not a woman in the film that doesn’t seem to come off as THIS close to being a witch on a broom. The implication that all women are just waiting to bring death and chaos I found quite disturbing.

    Yes, some of the men don’t come off that great, but most of the men are there to save the women from their sinfulness…and that’s it. Oh, and to have sex with them. One scene where a woman is being “tested” to see if she has feeling in her back – after her shirt has been ripped off – to prove she’s a witch.

    The stories were disjointed to me and I did not care for the changes of themes (first it’s a documentary, then it’s a story, then it’s a DIFFERENT story with the same actors, then it’s back to a documentary type and then confessionals by the director…heavy sigh).

    Plus…the acting was WAY over the top as was the fashion for silent films.

    Bottom line:

    I assume it was cutting edge for the time, disjointed and disturbing in 2009 (as it may have been in 1922). The contents don’t really add up to a whole, for me. Interesting in the way that looking at a car accident is interesting.

    Addendum:

    The music used seemed “tacked on” as it was all classical pieces of music and not written for the film. If there WAS original music written for the film, I hazard to guess the feel would have been different. It looks, to me, like many films from this era – if the original soundtrack can’t be found – slap some Beethoven on it and call it good.

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