Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
This review contains SPOILERS!
Credited as one of the first documentaries, "Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages" is better known simply as "Häxan"...for what reason? Because it's easier to say.
The Swedish film is an example of the craze of movie making people got into once film was invented. Everyone who had a camera just assumed that they should make movies, and here is where I disagree with most people.
"Häxan" starts with pictures of witchy happenings, old paintings and etchings of superstitious activities from centuries ago. One picture shows a witch using an axe to make milk. Another shows witches healing a person who is sick in bed with their herbal supplements and other non-FDA commissioned brews.
The narrator explains that witchcraft is a pox on society that has plagued us for too long. We delve into the history of witchcraft, that is, the history of witches. For the practice of the so-called "black magic" isn't really ever seen. We get one side of the coin and that's it.
Taken back to the ancients, we are told what the universe was thought to be: It was thought that the Earth was a giant valley surrounded by large mountains and cut off by an iron bar in the sky; or that we lived in what is similar to a snow globe; though it didn't take long for the ancients to figure out that the Earth was round (the idea that everyone thought the Earth was flat for eons is an excellent myth).
What does this have to do with witchcraft, i.e. witches? I wish I could tell you, but this is really not explained.
Clumsily, we are forced towards the idea of witches; and with that, we usher in the actors and the film itself.
There were rituals that witches would participate in, like a blasphemous celebration on the Sabbath that included a Satanic butt-kissing (I'm seriously not making this up). New women were recruited for this ritual...the new arrivals were smeared with an evil potion that would cement the fact that they were now witches. This cream-de-Satan also allowed the witches to fly on broomsticks.
Satan is portrayed as a very sexual creature in "Häxan", ironically he is played by the director, Benjamin Christensen. Satan is seen typically—big goofy horns and tail. He is a comical being, always with his tongue hanging out. All of the supernatural demons and evil beings are conveyed as animals, reflecting the thought that witches could turn men into frogs, mice, dogs, etc.
In this time (the Middle Ages), holy judges and priests would roam from town to town to purge cities of their witches. We are shown one such witch hunt...it starts with an overly-excited wife thinking that her husband's illness is the product of witchcraft. She confides this to a man who makes an off-hand comment, telling her that if her assumption is true, she'll be seeing a witch soon. The first person she sees is an old-seamstress and thus begins the witch hunt...it doesn't end until all the women in the town are dead.
The seamstress, under torture, tells the holy judges and priests about the devilish celebration on the Sabbath. She thinks that Satan has impregnated her and she 'gives birth' to baseball mascots (keeping in with the animalistic themes). The celebration involves some actually disturbing images, Benjamin Christensen did have a keen sense of vision and style.
But the film really lacks something and I can't put my finger on it...it just seems so stereotypical.
We get approximately a hour of witch things and then we come back to present day (the 1920s). Witchcraft has come and gone, women no longer get burned at the stake; but seers and fortune teller still abound, walking hand-in-hand with common day superstitions. These witches of the past must have just been crazy women, afflicted by mental disorders...this is what the film supposes at least.
In all honesty, the misogyny of the film is quite off-putting. Only once do we have a mention of a sorcerer, a male counterpart. Christensen's Satan is just obsessed with women...it's a corruption of the story of the Virgin Mary—where we get the thought that only young, beautiful, virginal women can be possessed by the Devil. Women are creatures with weaker minds, susceptible to the hands of the Devil...at least according to Christensen.
The film tells us that Satan enjoys younger women, he is a seducer...but mostly, he gets stuck with old hags (I don't understand it either).
I made the comment in my review of "Pride & Prejudice" on how sexual the film was, unexpectedly so. Though, I admit, these things only appear if you look for them. But "Häxan", on the other hand, has so many overt sexual themes that it's impossible not to notice...they are thrown at your face.
What is it about "Häxan" that makes it so annoying?...perhaps it's the contradiction of the narration and the images on the screen—this could be purposeful, but it's ignorant if it is.
The irony is heavy, perhaps the biggest irony is the fact that "Häxan" is not a true documentary.
The film makers assume too much.
My historical knowledge (which could be flawed) was waving red flags at the movie, particularly when it came to the burning of the witches. More witches were hanged than burned, and I'm suspicious of the statistics. I could be wrong...it wouldn't be the first time.
Never once are we given a different opportunity to think about other witch legends—we are only told about the Sabbath celebrations and the witch hunts...nothing else.
Classic or not, "Häxan" is a goofy, clumsy attempt at a documentary that remains both offensive and stilted.
Score: 2 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones