Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Häxan, (1922)

The Danish film Häxan, made by Benjamin Christensen in 1922, is perhaps the first ever example of the mingling of fiction and documentary. Essentially it’s a documentary on the history of witchcraft, but with fictionalised dramatisations of various events - what today would be described as reconstructions. Christensen clearly believes that the witch craze was the product of mass hysteria and religious fanaticism, and interestingly he sees parallels in the world of 1922, with psychiatrists (a priesthood that is still with us, armed today not with the infamous Malleus Maleficarum but with its modern equivalent, the DSM-IV) labelling problematical women as “hysterics” and locking them away where they can’t upset respectable folk. He also makes the point that many old women were accused of witchcraft, and that while such women no longer need to fear the stake our treatment of them is nothing to be proud of them. Like “hysterics” we want them to be out of sight where they won’t disturb us. The movie was controversial in its own day, being extremely critical of the Catholic Church and of Christian intolerance in general. It still packs quite a punch, and the scenes of poor deluded women who have convinced themselves they are possessed by Satan and deserve to be destroyed are still emotionally raw. In these days of paranoia and religious fundamentalism it’s perhaps even more relevant that it was in 1922. Visually it’s rather similar to the style of German Expressionism, and it makes effective use of tinting. Considering that there had been nothing like this movie before Christensen was very much experimenting with the form, and it works remarkably well. A fascinating film, and a great example of the extraordinary but sadly largely forgotten treasure that is silent cinema.

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