Macabre Media (Special Edition): Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)Posted: January 24, 2012
Title Card: Centuries have passed and the Almighty of medieval times no longer sits in his tenth sphere.
Title Card: But isn’t superstition still rampant among us?
Title Card: And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us?
I spent most of this snowy day sorting all of our books in preparation for moving. This was no small task. Upon figuring out how many bookshelves will fit into the new apartment, we realized we had to ruthlessly cull our collection. Of course we want to take along as many as we can, so I needed to physically move great stacks of books from downstairs to upstairs and vice versa – just to find out which groups of books would fit best on which shelves. You see, the shelves that are currently bolted to the walls upstairs will go in the new livingroom, and the shelves that are downstairs will be in our bedrooms. Obviously then, I decided, my cookbooks (31) had to go up and my writing books (79) had to go down – to cite two examples.
Those parenthetical numbers, by the way, are just the books that survived the cull. You don’t want to know how many “groups” we have, and you certainly don’t want to know how many books are in each of those groups. As for me, I don’t want to think about how many of my beloved volumes are now in bags, waiting to go to Half-Price Books when the roads get better.
But I’m supposed to be writing about Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, aren’t I? There is a connection: I was only able to settle in with a silent movie this evening because I was physically tired from lugging books around. Usually, I knit when I watch TV, but I have a tendency to stare at my hands rather than the screen, which makes title cards problematical. In fact, I have attempted Häxan before, but was not able to concentrate enough to really follow the story that the filmmaker, Benjamin Christensen, was trying to tell.
Tonight, I was able to stay with him. In the process, I was reminded I should set aside my handwork more often, because I do relish the experience of being transported to the early days of filmmaking. My enjoyment was enhanced, I think, by my recent viewing of the 2011 movie, Hugo – which helped me understand the art and craft that went into the films of Georges Méliès – an early and prolific film maker who basically invented special effects at the turn of the century.
Häxan – which was made twenty years later – had plenty of special effects, and I was surprised I found them effective, despite my jaded 21st-century sensibilities. The structure of the film was unusual – I’ve not seen the like before, even in other silent films. It’s a cross between a documentary and a dramatic story, presented in seven sections. One thing that struck me was the appearance of the decidedly non-glamorous actors. We are not used to seeing people who look this … real on a screen. No special effect makeup was required to make these actors look appropriate to the roles of medieval peasantry – I believe the toothless monk really was toothless. Apparently, the movie was quite shocking, in its day, due to scenes of torture and brief nudity. (These are very tame compared to today’s movies.)
The most fascinating section of this silent film comes in the seventh and final act, when the filmmaker, Benjamin Christensen, compares superstitious, middle-age practices and beliefs to those of modern times. Of course, the progressive and compassionate ideas of Christensen’s time strike the 21st-century eye as simplistic and sexist. It makes me wonder how people of the future will perceive the way we currently deal with mental illness.