We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
So far in our exploration of the greatest silent films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, we’ve seen dark horror pictures (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and we’ve seen the earliest entries in the documentary genre (Nanook of the North). But Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is something altogether different. It blends the two approaches to cinematic storytelling, using moody, atmospheric filmmaking in the service of what today would probably be considered a docudrama. Danish director Benjamin Christensen constructs an overview of witchcraft throughout European history, but he does so with a flair and dynamic tone that makes Häxan as compelling as any fictional melodrama from the same period.
To say that this film was controversial for its time is probably putting it mildly. In fact, although Häxan was a great success in its native Denmark, it was banned and heavily censored in so many other countries that it was unable to rely on the utterly essential export market, making it impossible to recoup the expenses for what was already an unusually expensive production. Christensen ended up working in Germany for a few years, largely because he was given financial opportunities that Scandinavian production companies may have been reluctant to provide.
But going back to Häxan. The film is essentially divided into three parts, each playing a different role in the history of witchcraft. The first is the most documentary-like, providing text and historical artwork that would lay the groundwork to explore the deeply held belief in witches that was pervasive throughout European history. Moving into the second section, Christensen begins to include more dramatic reenactments that detail some of the most common views of witches. We see them creating love potions, flying through the night on broomsticks, cavorting with Satan, and all manner of heretic behavior. The way this is depicted on-screen was incredibly shocking at the time. Nudity, the sexual relationship between purported witches and the devil, and all-out orgies each have a role to play in Häxan. Banned for years in the United States, a recent review in Variety put it plainly: “Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.”
This reaction is undoubtedly linked to the vulgar sexual content that the film features, perhaps easily accepted in the more liberated Scandinavian countries but utterly unfathomable in the United States. At the same time, though, there’s an element of criticism towards the church in Häxan that could also easily explain why it would provoke a moral panic. As the film goes on, it examines in closer detail the gap between the stereotypical notion of a witch and the flesh-and-blood women who were often accused of witchcraft.
Here, Christensen argues that we would see argued decades later from Arthur Miller with The Crucible. He suggests that the repressive attitude of the church combined with the darker side of human nature saw millions of innocent people falsely accused of witchcraft. And furthermore, that the victims of this mania were predominantly women, especially women who were vulnerable in some way, either by poverty, advanced age, or mental illness. Christensen’s criticism is directed at the actions of a religion and a society from centuries past, but at the same time, it accuses the church of having such an undercurrent of cruelty that it’s easy to see why it may have made Christians in Europe and the United States uncomfortable.
It is this ability to intellectually engage with a history that sets Christensen’s work apart, creating a story that is part-fantasy but at the same time heavily grounded in reality. We could, in fact, say that Häxan is not just a work of historical fiction or docudrama but perhaps one of the first films to grapple with historiography or the study of how we examine history. At any rate, Häxan is a thought-provoking work, one that has artistic merits as well as an intellectual point of view. It’s an eccentric offering from one of Denmark’s great early directors, but it stands out as noteworthy nonetheless (or, indeed, perhaps because of its strangeness.)