Häxan: The Real Unreal
Born in Denmark to a wealthy family in 1879, Benjamin Christensen dropped out of medical school to receive training as an opera singer, only to lose his singing voice to what was diagnosed as an incurable nervous illness. He then had some success as an actor in the theater, until his voice failed him there, too, whereupon he left the stage to go into business. In 1912, he returned to acting, this time in the thriving Danish film industry, but soon became more interested in directing. His first two films behind the camera, Sealed Orders (1914) and Blind Justice (1916), possess great charm and are well worth watching for their fluidity, ingenuity, and unpretentious naturalism, but their qualities can have led few of their initial viewers to expect from Christensen anything like the breakthrough of his third film, Häxan (1922).
Produced by the leading Swedish film company, Svensk Filmindustri, which lured him with the promise of full artistic freedom, Häxan (pronounced HEK-sen and meaning “witch”) was the result of Christensen’s lengthy research into the long history of witchcraft and of the persecution of accused witches in Western culture. As he once explained to an interviewer, his goal was to “throw light on the psychological causes of these witch trials by demonstrating their connections with certain abnormalities of the human psyche, abnormalities which have existed throughout history and still exist in our midst.” In Christensen’s view, the medieval and early modern women who were labeled witches, and who suffered torture and death at the hands of men armed with the power of the church, would in his time have been diagnosed as hysterics. He also thought that the understanding and treatment of mental illness in his own society fell short of being enlightened and humane. Christensen made the radical decision to present his research and his ideas on-screen not in one or two dramatized case studies but as a “cultural history lecture in moving pictures,” mingling historical documents and reenactments.
Christensen filmed Häxan in Denmark in 1921 and ’22. The film found an enthusiastic reception on its initial release in the fall of 1922 in Sweden and Denmark. Elsewhere, Häxan faced problems. Censors in several countries—including Germany, France, and the United States—objected to its numerous scenes of torture, sex, nudity, and anticlericalism, and only after undergoing extensive reediting could it be publicly shown in those markets. The film went on to spend decades in the purgatory of movies that are much mentioned but rarely seen; when Häxan was shown, it was often in a shortened 1968 version called Witchcraft Through the Ages, prepared by filmmaker Antony Balch and narrated by William S. Burroughs. In recent years, benefiting from successive restorations and wider distribution, Häxan has taken its place among the preeminent works of silent cinema. With its vigorous storytelling, its vivid and shocking imagery, its rich mise-en-scène, and its profound ambiguity, Häxan can be considered one of a handful of silent films that still have the power to engage a noncinephile audience on their own terms, and without needing alibis for performance style, cultural norms, technical means, or narrative conventions.
“One of Häxan’s masterstrokes is the way it places together, on the same level of cinematic depiction, fact and fiction, objective reality and hallucination.”
“In bringing together witch-finding judges, convent misdeeds, and black magic, Häxan prefigures no fewer than three cinematic subgenres that would later become popular.”
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