Thursday 19 April 2007

Häxan (1922) Benjamin Christensen

Made between 1919 and 1921 and released in 1922, Häxan (or The Witch) is a film I've sort of seen. What I've seen is the 1968 version called Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was shrunk, a jazz score was added and worst of all a narration by William S Burroughs was overlaid onto the film. That version is frankly awful and yet there was obviously some joyous substance hiding behind all the awfulness. Now I finally get a chance to see it as it was meant to be seen. How much better than its bastard 1968 offspring could it be?

Well it's an astounding film but it's far from consistent. There are seven chapters and the documentary of ancient belief that opens the film, and reappears at points throughout, is quaint but hardly essential. It's like a lecture, complete with pointer, where we can't hear the lecturer and it's very talky, which is a bizarre thing to say about a silent movie! There are still saving graces though, such as the mechanical representation of hell which is fascinating, just as later the torture devices look stunningly authentic.

Fortunately we're soon on to chapter two where the dramatisation of fantastic events begins. We're in the underground lair of a sorceress in 1488, full of the expected accoutrements of witchcraft: a thief's corpse from the gallows, frogs and snakes to put in the pot, hung up skeletons and the like. A woman visits to buy potions to bespell a man of the cloth and we're treated not just to the dramatisation but to wish fulfilment sequences too.

All this is lush and fascinating and it continues on through the chapters, whenever the documentary approach isn't being taken. The costumes are wonderful and sometimes outlandish, the sets superbly designed and constructed, and there's a slew of intriguing optical and cinematic effects, which are quite astounding for the time including film reversals, silhouettes, double exposures and even stop motion animation. There are an assortment of devils, played by director Benjamin Christensen, and a whole host of memorable faces in close up, just like Carl Theodor Dreyer conjured up later in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Some of these sequences play almost like scenes from mediaeval art come to life, which presumably was the intention in the first place. Maria the weaver's fabricated confession plays exactly like how I imagine Hieronymous Bosch would make a movie, for instance.

The documentary sequences really let the film down, from a modern perspective, but the rest is astounding and reading up on how it was done is fascinating. The film was the most expensive made in Scandinavia up to that time and it employed innovative techniques completely new to film. To display witches flying over the town, Christensen built a huge turntable so large that it took twenty men to rotate, built a town in miniature on top of the turntable with houses two feet high, and then superimposed footage of witches using a special optical printer. There are films documenting the making of many movies, which are often pointless; how I'd love to see such a film about the making of Häxan.

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