Häxan is an intriguing movie. Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, it behaves like a documentary about witchcraft, Paganism, and dark magic, but sometimes comes across as a horror movie with semi-factual accounts. It is divided into seven chapters (four if you’re watching the theatrical cut, which more than likely is impossible to find these days), each taking us through different stages of witch trials. There is no sense of nostalgia in this movie, and it manages to do something that very few contemporary documentaries have been able to pull off convincingly: It is unbiased.
Of course it’s not 100% unbiased. No movie is. But we never get the feeling that Christensen seeks to impose his assumptions and beliefs onto us. His story, which for the most part takes place in Medieval times and revolves around witches facing trial by fire under the heavy-handed authority of Inquisition monks, is more of a recount than an instruction. It observes. At times the movie becomes meta, with the text cards referring to the narrator in the first person, and Christensen splicing in shots of actresses, unadorned, fiddling with ancient torture devices just for the heck of it. It includes a plethora of mediums, some more effective than others, all working cohesively to present an idea of the past.
The opening chapter is all text and images. None moving. We are introduced to the movie as if it were a stage play, and gradually we are shown pictures and diagrams illustrating the various methods of sorcery employed by witches and sorcerers of old. They burn villages, fly around town, concoct potions, worship the devil and sell their souls for a hefty price, all for the ability to influence their surroundings. There is a segment that I found to be particularly innovative: The narrator explains, with the help of primitive yet functional diagrams, how the world was viewed by Medieval astronomers and scientists. There is a ring of fire around the Earth’s atmosphere. It is orbited by planets and celestial bodies. The sun is minuscule compared to what we know of it today. The stars take the form of the Zodiac and encircle themselves around the planets. It is one giant wheel of astronomy. And then divine beings inhabit the space beyond, looking down on Earth as neutral custodians, but occasionally interfering.
There is much in this movie to relish. The production design by Richard Louw creates a claustrophobic environment that traps its viewers in a time and place. I have determined — for myself — that the close-ups of silent movies, though similar in design and purpose to the close-ups of modern pictures, create an entirely different outcome. The cuts are usually disjointed; they are standalone shots that aim to pull the audience in from a wide or a mid, right up to the characters’ faces. We feel somewhat trapped by silent movie close-ups. We have nowhere else to turn. When a character is sobbing or recoiling in fright, we are forced to look upon them with sympathy or terror. The camera stays on them long enough for us to feel just the right pinch of uneasiness, and then we are snapped back into the wide or mid. The moment is usually brief, but it’s powerful.
And this happens many a time in Häxan. Witches cry, monks scowl. All in close-up. We can see the tears and the anger. They tell the story for the actors, who do splendid jobs. Naturally, though, there isn’t a hero. There is no one man or woman whom we can root for. Like I mentioned earlier, the movie lets us observe. The only time Christensen tries to make a point is at the end, when the story returns to present day. It seems he’s found the cause of hysteria and sleepwalking. It dates back hundreds of years. Maybe he’s stumbled onto something here. Who knows? The devil, and all his minions, after all, work in secret. No one ever sees him, but he’s there, doing his thing. Shifting the balance.
Best Moment | A few of the torture shots. The scene of the lady giving birth to demons is also good. But very creepy.
Worst Moment | This is just me being silly. But Satan looks a bit comical sometimes, especially when he’s pumping that thingamajiggy.