Silent Film Series: Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages [1922]

When it comes to stylish, disturbing and outlandishly innovative silent films, one of the first few options that pop into my minds' eye is Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages. Although the film managed to obtain a soundtrack complete with scholarly narration from William S. Burroughs in the 1968, my preferred version of the film is the silent one complete with its flickering frames of colour, stark shadowy imagery and the overall sense of unease that comes with the silence.

Made in Sweden, Haxan is a documentary which straddles itself with a fictional account of the controversial subject that is witchcraft throughout the course of human history from its pagan routes to its subsequent bastardization in more current cultural assumptions, this is a heck of an odd film that is just as likely going to give you a case of Forest Whitaker Eye and potentially cause a few light-sleeping nights. From unholy tableaus of midnight bacchanalian Sabbaths, squalling babes being lowered into bubbling concoctions, perverted monks, cringe-inducing torture, malicious rituals, demons buggering nuns and writhing orgies, this is a movie that many in the western world tried to put a cap on due to it's more explicit material.
To add further insight to the film, Christensen did not merely direct but also starred as Jesus Christ AND Satan where he gets to bless the pious and fornicate with the damned.  In fact, I would hazard to motion Christensen's Lord of Lies, is one of the best physical depictions of the character in cinema ever, from his salacious glowering eyes to his commanding gestures, Christensen leaves a hell of a first impression when you first clap eyes on him. Speaking of which, due to its European sensibilities, this film isn't afraid to show the naked human form, male or female, so WHOOPEEEE!!!!

In all honesty, Haxan is not a mere titillating shocker but a scathing exercise of debunking notorious myths and misconceptions about witchcraft and those who practice it, namely it is a condemnation of opinions that had been lumped against people of the past who were accused to being 'seen with the Devil' (that is just a polite way of saying your wife/daughter/niece/aunt/ fucked the Devil in the woods). Although a lot of the deeds represented in this movie have been greatly exaggerated for the broader education of a potentially unknowing audience, there is something bigger going on here. Christensen goes out of his way to bite his thumb at the horrendous crimes against humanity that our forebears committed by not just outright mocking religion and showing naked bodies on screen, but also representing society's manufactured views of what is pious and what is devious by personifying them as Jesus and Old Scratch with himself in both roles. Jesus and Satan are artificial constructs and simplifications of human nature just as the notion that people who do not conform to society are seen as 'wild', 'defiant' and 'weird' are. What Christensen is doing here is essentially throwing the glove down at how we as a species tend to be deeply prejudiced and rely on just what we would prefer to assume rather than what we know. Ultimately, we make and become our own gods based on our personal beliefs, because that is all we ever have.

Style-wise, this is an attractive film and I feel it was made at an opportune time- let's face it, would a feature like this be made for a mainstream audience to watch in theaters given the ridiculous standards of censorship we have allowed to impede our artistic work? Oh sure, you could get a great indie director who manages to weave through the cracks, but even then the film could be shelved or even banned for years due to the fact folks out there will always be butt-hurt. Indeed, the antiquated 1920's film making technology and expressionism greatly informs the look and sensation of the movie in a way that couldn't be fully replicated. But you don't merely need to take my word for it;


Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages remains an important movie- it is daring, it remains relevant culturally and artistically and it is utterly fearless for a movie made back in an epoch where propriety was still being held in high regard (whether it was being practiced was a another matter entirely). Christensen was intent on calling out the bullshit we as a society inflict upon ourselves and each other by reflecting it back through the shocking depiction of diabolical deeds on screen. We may scold and chastise our ancestors for behaving they way they did, but there is no erasing the past and the best way to improve ourselves is to never forget where we came from and films such as this ensure that will not happen. After all, who can forget being sodomized by Satan? I sure as heck can't!

Tidbit: Due to the type of emulsion of the film stock used, the blue in many of the actors' blue eyes did not register, giving their eyes a glazed, unnatural appearance. You know, as if the film didn't look horrorshow enough.

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