Tuesday 21 June 2011

1,001 Films: "Haxan" (1922)

The Danish director Benjamin Christensen's film Haxan, one of the silent cinema's genuine oddities, forms in essence an illustrated lecture on the origins and practice of witchcraft through the ages. Jolly woodcarvings featuring cannibalism and blasphemy are spliced with facts both bewildering ("After a meeting, [witches] might sneak into a barn and bewitch a cow") and jaw-dropping (it's claimed some eight million were killed by authorities across Europe on suspicion of practising black magic); these, in turn, are interwoven with fictional recreations of devilry. There's some crossover with early peephole material: Satan (played by a bald, portly middle-aged man with stick-on ears and claws) lures several nude wives and their lissom daughters out of their beds.

More generally, Christensen appears to have intended the film as a rational reframing of primitive beliefs; the irony being that, with its flickering, tinted and wordless images, and its hysterical conclusions (that well-known actors and handsome doctors are the new devils keeping women up all night, that female aviators can be compared to witches on broomsticks), that framing now looks fairly primitive in itself. Still, the mix of approaches - arriving at then-modern melodrama only after its early flirtations with early stop-motion photography and graphic horror tableaux - reveals that, back in the early 1920s, European filmmakers were both formally and thematically more audacious than their American contemporaries. A cinema of spirits, angels and demons - this was a universe Carl Dreyer, and later Ingmar Bergman, would find it very easy to operate within.

Haxan is available on DVD from Tartan.

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