One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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Filed under Cinema, Religion, Sexuality

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