The Rear-View Mirror: Häxan (1922)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Häxan, a Swedish-Danish silent film from 1922, is a fascinating cultural artifact in so many ways, even before you get to the bit where witches kiss the devil’s behind. Historically, culturally and cinematically, it constitutes a trip to a very different time and place – both in terms of its depiction of medieval Europe and of when and where it was made. There is a strangeness to the film that is intriguing, but at the same time its format is oddly familiar – more so now, perhaps, than it would have been ten, twenty years ago. Because, essentially, Häxan is an extended video essay.

There’s probably a discussion to be had as to whether Häxan should be called a documentary film, and what exactly constitutes a documentary film. This is not the place for that discussion, though it would be an interesting one, so I’ll focus instead on what I think the film does. Häxan is definitely interested in informing and educating; in fact, it pretty much starts off as something of a lecture, though a cinematically appealing one: director Benjamin Christensen and his crew put the concepts talked about into images, they aim for an appealing, memorable blend of the verbal and the visual. The film makes use of paintings, woodcuts and statues – and of their aesthetic appeal.

Similarly, Christensen uses reenactments ranging from the mundane to the highly fantastical, again to better put his audience in the right headspace. The aim isn’t only to document reality: Christensen clearly derives enjoyment out of the act of turning his reenactments into short films in their own right, and he’s got a knack for storytelling. His depiction of medieval superstition isn’t dry and scholarly, it is fun and exciting and at times harrowing. Christensen’s sympathy is with the poor and the powerless, and Häxan understands how the notion of witchcraft might appeal to them. This may in fact be both one of the film’s strengths and its main weakness: Häxan is most immediately enjoyable during its long stretches of reenactments of what the witches supposedly get up to – the wild feasts and orgies on the Blocksberg, the parade of fantastical devils and familiars, and as a result the film risks making the parts that it wants to present as fabrication more memorable, more real to the audience, than the depressing reality he depicts.

The director also has a decidedly modern axe to grind, with the church and its oppressiveness, but also with modern psychiatry. Christensen draws parallels between those accused of witchcraft and those whose behaviour in modern-day society is interpreted as pathological, and he is by no means subtle in decrying both medieval and contemporary means of social control through use of biting irony. Häxan essentially presents a long-form argument, but its interests are in the end more syncretic than that. It is the blend of the documentary, the narrative, the entertaining and the argumentative that Christensen is interested in and that puts him in fine company with some of the best present-day video essayists you could find on YouTube and Vimeo.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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