Documentaries did not properly exist in 1922 as a cinematic form. That year, the American film Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty was released, which essentially invented the documentary format as we most often see it: Extended, largely unstaged footage of “the real world” in the spirit of early cinema “actualities,” edited together with some commentary, that serves to teach its viewers about a topic, theme, or event. (Never mind that Flaherty did in fact stage and manipulate large portions of his footage, even changing the name of its central character.)
Thus, when Benjamin Christensen released Häxan that same year, he did not have a large corpus of documentary films to use as a basis, essentially inventing a variation on the format himself. Häxan is not really a documentary, as nearly all of its footage is a cinematic construction filmed at a Danish studio of an invented scenario. “Essay film” would probably be the most apt descriptor, and is indeed the term that Wikipedia uses.
Nonetheless, Häxan (Swedish for “The Witch”) feels quite a bit like a documentary in structure. Rather than a linear narrative, it strings together segments with a blend of educational content and staging of hypothetical scenarios that center around the theme of witch-hunting through the ages.
The film is broken into seven chapters, each approximately fifteen minutes: The first part is a lecture-style segment outlining a religious history of the belief in demons that eventually evolved into witch-burning. The second segment reenacts some medieval scenes of Satan and witches causing trouble near a monastery.
The film’s third, fourth, and fifth chapters present the most substantial portion of the film, a story about the prosecution of a suspected witch during the Middle Ages. We witness lurid scenes both real and imagined, including torture, a “Witches’ Sabbath,” sexual fantasies, and a burning at the stake.
Häxan’s final two chapters serve as a conclusion in a more directly didactic mode, reframing the previous depictions of witches as the byproduct of mental health. Part 7, in particular, feels almost like a video teachers might have shown in health class 50 years ago to teach about mental illness and how it can manifest in various criminal behaviors.
Though the film has an educational spin, it’s richest pleasures lie in the incredible filmmaking of its middle section. It’s some of the most stirring and engaging horror imagery in cinema history up to that point. Maren Pedersen has some haunting close-ups as the accused witch, her face chiseled into desperation. The shots of torture devices in action are occasionally stomach churning. Christensen himself appears frequently as Satan, the personification of evil impulses.
As much as Christensen seems keen refute the classic notion of witchcraft and Satanic possession (drowning the film in too many informative intertitles), there’s no question that he is titillated and enraptured by the ancient beliefs. Many of the scenes are creepy and arresting constructions. There’s a masterful special effect of witches flying against a zooming background that might be the best depiction of the classic witch on a broomstick I’ve ever seen. Christensen employs artful direction and visual composition, including a scene of alternating shots during the questioning of the suspected witch. It shows the disorienting whiplash of coercive interrogation that Pedersen’s weaver that causes her to break down and confess, and creates a similar disorientation in the viewer.
The horror imagery is so compelling that it overwhelms the rest of the movie and makes me wish that Christensen had created a straightforward horror film, perhaps an anthology of witch stories. It would perhaps diminish the structural innovation or educational properties of the film, but a properly moody version of Häxan could very well have been a full masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the film’s score is a bit of a miss, as it’s an eclectic blend of classical “greatest hits,” including a loop of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata that feels out of place.
I opted instead to listen to the commentary track by Danish film historian Casper Tybjerg available on the Criterion release and on the Criterion Channel. It is an illuminating overview, giving insight into the cinematic technique of the film, Christensen’s career, and the historical background of witch-burning. It turns out Christensen got most of his details correct, although the number of actual witch-burnings cited (a ludicrous 50 million) was based on a since-debunked work, where the actual number was closer to 50,000.
Häxan is ultimately a fascinating and compelling curiosity, but an inessential curiosity nonetheless. I highly recommend it for horror enthusiasts; others may find the overall experience a hair tedious, though certainly a step forward in stunning dark imagery.