Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

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