Häxan is a Danish silent film—or I think some combination of Danish and Swedish—from 1922 about witchcraft. It is a documentary, but it includes docudrama-style reenactments of events, and wholly fictitious scenes to illustrate various points.
The first section is a series of still photos of paintings, woodcuts, etc. throughout European history of devils and witches and such, as well as diagrams and models depicting fanciful Christian cosmology. These are used as illustrations for the title card narration about the history of superstitious religious beliefs about witchcraft. While some of the visuals are interesting, this is clearly the slowest portion of the film.
The rest of the movie is mostly live action. There are various short vignettes depicting common beliefs about Satan and witches—Satan seducing a woman away from her marital bed, covens of witches lined up to kiss the anus of Satan as a goat, a witch selling a love potion to a woman who uses it to seduce a monk, etc.—and then the bulk of the film is taken up by an extended drama about a woman accused of witchcraft, and the religious “trial” that ensues.
Throughout, the filmmaker makes clear what side he’s on. Though the visuals are sometimes sensationalist for their time, substantively the movie is a dry, rational lecture about the superiority of science over superstition, and the dangers of hyper-emotionalism especially when harnessed to an unaccountable institution such as the Medieval Church. It is an exposé of the cruelty, corruption, and injustice of the era of massive witch hunts in Europe.
There’s always the chance that a film like this is exploitative, that the scholarly stuff is there to give a phony respectable gloss to a lot of (implied) sex and violence that otherwise wouldn’t be allowed in a 1922 movie. That is, it might be like the porn magazines of the 1970s or so, that routinely included academic-style text about sex research or quotations from famous literature or whatever, so as to satisfy the Supreme Court’s rules about something not being obscene if it has “redeeming social value.”
But it doesn’t have that feel to me. My impression is it’s sincere, that the elements that would be controversial or shocking to certain audiences aren’t tossed in gratuitously to sell tickets, but are a part of the artistic message of the film, which is that the phenomena in question genuinely merit shock and outrage.
In some ways the film speaks to me and in some ways it doesn’t. I’m simply too far removed stylistically from the film for it to have the impact on a gut level that it otherwise might.
The reviews I read of this film didn’t mention this factor, but I wonder if that’s disingenuous in a way, like certain people want to pretend they don’t need all the bells and whistles of modern film technology, that they can respond purely to the substance of what’s being presented. For me, though I was drawn in to a limited extent, I was always aware of a disconnect due to the fact that this is a silent movie, black and white, of people in a foreign culture behaving in the unnatural and exaggerated manner of people in silent movies.
I don’t mean that it’s ridiculous or campy, like Reefer Madness or something like that, but there’s a certain other-worldliness to it.
But that’s not to say I was bored throughout the film and didn’t feel anything. It got through to me somewhat—seeing the “heads I win, tails you lose” nature of the judicial proceedings, or the way the witchcraft accusations multiply out of control in The Crucible fashion, or the close-ups of the actual implements of torture that were used in those days to get confessions, etc.
In some ways the film provides an opportunity to feel superior looking back at those quaint and backwards times of witch hunts. That’s a big part of the message of the film, that thankfully times have changed and now we understand these things scientifically.
But it’s not like that stuff is dead and gone. Science and rationality are far from fully triumphant in the contemporary world. The percentage of people with wacky beliefs (astrology, pseudo-science, fundamentalist mainstream religions, non-mainstream religions and cults, academic oddities like relativism and postmodernism, etc.) may be slightly lower than during the Middle Ages, but it’s still a massive figure, indeed a comfortable majority of the human population.
Then again, let’s temper that a bit by noting that the number of people who really believe such things and base their life decisions on them—as opposed to just paying them lip service out of a sense of loyalty to their religion, culture, family, political ideology, etc.—isn’t nearly that great. My impression is that a lot more people centuries ago took this all very literally, whereas now it’s more mixed.
But still, there remain plenty of people who believe in supernaturalism very strongly, very literally. It’s not like it’s just some trivial fringe, some tiny fraction of the population, that thinks that Barack Obama is the Antichrist, or that the world was magically created about six thousand years ago. It’s a very sizable number of your neighbors, the people you see in their cars when you’re on the road, the people you pass on the street. Often even the people in your family.
Up to and including belief in witchcraft, by the way. So it isn’t just that a lot of people today have irrational beliefs roughly analogous to a belief in witchcraft, but that they believe specifically that witchcraft is a real phenomenon. There are many people—religious fundamentalists primarily—who believe there are witches cavorting with Satan and using black magic and raping and killing and devouring babies en masse, etc., the way I believe there are kangaroos hopping around in Australia.
Some folks have progressed from what this movie depicts, but plenty haven’t. That’s pretty scary to contemplate.
Anyway, as far as Häxan itself, it’s worthwhile to see as a piece of film history, and the general topic of irrationalism and religious supernaturalism and such is an interesting and important one to think about and discuss, but I’m not going to say I got a great deal out of this movie, or that it’s one I would strongly urge people to be sure to see.
It was less difficult for me to get through this film than it likely would be to get through over 90% of the films from 1922, but that’s not saying much.