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Monday, 9 May 2011

Silent Film Marathon: Film 6

Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages is a film I had only vaguely heard of before thinking of this marathon, it was the only one of these Silent films that I didn't own already, but as it was very highly recommended to me I decided to add it to my collection and subsequently review it as part of this marathon. And as it is part of the inestimable Criterion Collection it was easy to obtain and then watch.

After having watched it I must first thank all those who recommended it for it is a truly amazing film. I was fascinated all the way through and the film's subject was one of such originality and was presented in such an honest and appealing way that I could not help but feel that I was watching one of the wonders of the Silent Era.

Haxan is directed by Benjamin Christensen, a Dane, and is a co-production between Denmark and Sweden. This makes it one of the few Scandinavian Silent films I've seen.
It also happened to be the most expensive Scandinavian film made at the time.

Haxan is a film about Witchcraft, but it presents it's story in a very peculiar and different fashion. It is divided into 7 chapters, this in itself was hardly uncommon at the time, but the fact that each chapter tells a story that it linked only by the subject matter, Witchcraft, as well as the fact that not all these chapters are presented in a conventional narrative format.
Some of them, which make up considerable chunks of the film, are presented in a documentary fashion, with slideshows's of image representing the times being discussed, these images come with a commentary by the director in form of many intertitles, quoting various authors, stating various facts, and theorising on the subject.
It is a very personal film in which the director speaks directly to the audience, by way of the intertitles (although there exists a version of the film that replaces them with a voice over narration) I believe this is one of the first films of this kind, that I've seen anyway. It could be described as a very early example of a documentary if it wasn't for the rest of the film, which is made up of re-enactments of the times featuring actors but as these scenes are only used to demonstrate points, provide examples and more comprehensive explanations, I suppose the film could still be classified as a Documentary.

This unusual format makes this a rather hard film to write about, I'll do my best of course but I will keep descriptions rather vague, as it's a film best experienced with little knowledge of it beforehand.

The film begins with a fascinating and informative chapter that explains the views and general mind set of people in the period of time referred to as the Middle Ages in this film.
It explains how they viewed Earth's place in the universe (see image), and generally provides much context and set up for the film.
This part can be described as the most informative, we are shown a great many engravings and drawings depicting Witchcraft and Devils. It is fascinating stuff that set the tone suitably for the rest of the film.

But after this Documentary like beginning, the sudden switch to a dramatisation in the second chapter comes as a bit of a surprise and takes some getting used to.
This first of the dramatised segments presents the witches from what could be called the common point of view, we see elderly women brewing toads and snakes into love potions and such things. It's very much the "classic" image of a Witch that would be the first to come to a modern person's mind.
All this is very interesting, perhaps less so than the documentary parts, but the sets are great and the costumes and make up are some of the best I've seen in Silent film, extremely convincing.
This part is very important as it shows the viewer how people thought of witch at the time, this superstition would then lead to the witch hunts, which are then shown in detail in the next segment.

This next segment is by far the longest, taking up much of the middle of the film, and is in itself made up of a few of the 7 chapters.
In this segment we see the consequences of the superstition and fear surrounding witches, as an elderly woman who certainly fits the description is turned over to the inquisitors based on what is only an assumption, yet this is enough for the inquisitors who capture her and force her into confessing by various horrible mean. We are then shown the terrible repercussions of her confession (which is most likely a false one, but this is left ambiguous) and many other presumably innocent women are arrested and meet the same fate as this one. Basically the Inquisition were so zealous in their pursuit of witches, that they created them where there had been none. 

 Afterwards we have a short segment explaining the various kind of tortures put to use, this is particularly unpleasant yet informative. There isn't much else to say on the subject, apart from maybe marvel at how elaborate and inventive some of those torture techniques were, how did they come up with all those?

Then we have a segment set in a convent which is infiltrated and eventually driven insane by the Devil. I found this segment to be the least interesting, I thought it didn't really tie in well with the rest of the film and while it was interesting enough in itself it could have been shorter, this was one of the very few problems I had with the film.

Finally we the last chapter which explains through a modern point of view the phenomenon of the witch hunts and the horror caused by them (8 million women, men and children killed as witches over a couple of centuries), it expounds upon the gradual decrease in prominence of Hell and the Devil in modern society, on the fact that the symptoms of hysteria are surprisingly close to those of the supposed witches and much much more.

Much of the film is devoted to dispelling the myths that have gathered around witches over the years. The fact is that the majority of those accused were innocent and the rest were only guilty of practising their beliefs in a different way than the Church. Although I do no doubt the existence of real witches, ie women (or men) who have made a pact with the devil in one way or another, I doubt many of them were caught at all. In fact, wasn't the inquisition the most devilish thing around at the time anyway ? Weren't they responsible for all the pain and suffering which would not have existed if it wasn't for them, their hunt for the devil and his servants turned them into what they were supposedly hunting.

An interesting fact is that the Devil, who appears many times throughout the film, was played by the director of the film himself in heavy and actually quite convincing make up. (See image to the right)
In fact, all the make up this film was amazing, it played a large part in making it so scary and looks well ahead of it's time. I mean some of the creatures looked like they'd been lifted out of an 80's film or something, even though this was made more than half a century before.

I think that your personal beliefs will have alot to do with how you interpret this film, of course this can be said to be true to some extent for all films but in films such as these it's especially prominent.
If you are some kind of religious fanatic, you will probably be offended by this film as it portrays the inquisition in a very negative light, while also arguing that many of these so called demonic possession, bewitched, or spellbound cases were in fact examples of nervous or mental disorder. In fact some very interesting theories on the matter are presented towards the end of the film.

Previously in the marathon I reviewed Nosferatu, the celebrated Horror film. I didn't really expound on it's actual "scariness" much though as it was rather minimal, the general atmosphere was creepy and unsettling but far from scary. This film however was terrifying, in a very different way, no supernatural being here, just plain facts, the shots of the torture instruments are truly horrifying but are rendered even more so as we know that they were actually put to use upon living human beings, which Count Orlok wasn't.

 All in all, Haxan is simply one of the darkest yet most thought provoking and intelligently made films of the Silent era. It's essential viewing and still has the power to shock and horrify after near on 90 years.Christensen really hit the right note with this film, it could have turned out to be a ridiculous Horror film masquerading as a "true story" (as is common these days) but it ended up being so much more. The best thing to do would be to watch it though, as it's a hard film to describe.
Highly recommended, a very different kind of Silent film, yet one of the best!

All comments are of course appreciated!

Next up is La Roue, the longest film in this marathon at over 5 hours. So I will not have the review up today due to it's length.

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