A proper subtitle for exploitation/witchcraft history film Häxan (1922) would be “Witchcraft as a Social Ill -or- Mistreatment of Women Through the Millennia.” I just had the chance to see Häxan on the big screen at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, thanks to Filmusik. As a fan of silent movies and dark subject matter, I’ve been wanting to catch this movie in the theater for a long time. It was awesome seeing this movie with not one, but two live bands to accompany it. For those interested, the bands were Jaggery and Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys.
The title Häxan translates from Swedish (it’s a Swedish film) to Witch. The film is broken up into several parts. Haxan begins with an introduction to medieval beliefs about the nature of the universe. How the universe rotated around the Earth, how the stars hung from a ceiling that was held in the sky by columns, and how hell could be reached by digging. During this part, the movie resembles instructional films from the 1950s, featuring a pointer which intrudes from off-screen to show what the narrative is talking about (and the viewer becomes worried that the whole film is going to continue in this vein).
It’s my opinion that this first part of the film was aimed at censors of the time with the goal of justifying what was to follow as “instructional.” Fortunately, a very sharp left turn is made, and Häxan gets lurid fast. The second part of the movie is about witches rites as they were believed to happen in the middle ages, and approaches the subject of witchcraft as a social ill, like poverty or crime: Lonely old ladies make potions from birds, toads, snakes, and rotting body parts of hanged criminals. Lonely younger ladies want the potions to seduce fat monks who have terrible table manners. Unfortunate babies are sacrificed. In a telling key scene, a conga line of witches stops one by one to kiss the behind of a gleeful devil.
Part three continues the theme of witchcraft as a social ill by highlighting the ways in which accusations of witchcraft were used to oppress women. Once accused of being a witch, a person was screwed. It probably isn’t news to anyone reading this review that most of the “tests” used to expose witches were double-binds like the famous water test. A witch was thrown into a river. If the water rejected her, and the witch floated, she was found guilty and would be burned at the stake. If she sank, then everyone was happy for the drowned woman, because at least she wasn’t a witch.
The final part of Häxan is a meditation on how some things that were identified by superstitious people in the dark ages as “witchcraft” may really have been other problems like kleptomania, sleepwalking, or “hysterical women”. This part uses several vignettes to show parallels between women with these social ills in the middle ages and modern times. The modern woman being much more fortunate in that she is institutionalized or drugged instead of being burned at the stake. One of the scenes here was of a modern woman being caught red handed for compulsively stealing a ring in a jewelry shop. The shop keeper demands that she follow him into his office, where the viewer expects him to extract a (most likely degrading) price for her freedom. Instead, he lets her go with a stern warning.
The best thing about Häxan is the lurid chiaroscuro imagery that plays out in each part. Many of the scenes are like folk automata as they would have been designed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Häxan is populated by monsters, devils, animal people, and witches. The witches run the gamut from crones to young damsels in distress and/or various states of undress. Although Häxan portrays women in a number of compromising and unflattering positions, the men in the movie are worse by far. With only a few exceptions (such as the jewelry store keeper), the men are monsters, devils, torturers, accusers, and murderous zealots.
Creepy Factor: 3 out of 5
Suspense Factor: 1 out of 5
Weird Erotic Tension Factor: 3 out of 5
Funny and/or Strange Factor: 5 out of 5
Final result: Without a doubt the most lurid (non-pornographic) silent film I know of, Häxan simultaneously enchants and bores. It caused a lot of outrage during its own time, and as a result it was widely banned or censored. Besides the scenery, the most interesting thing about Häxan is its angle on witchcraft as a historical social ill, and yeah – that’s kind of dry, sadly. If you get a chance to see it in a theater, I would recommend checking it out, especially if you can see it with a live band. But the restored Criterion Collection edition? Maybe it’s a pass.