The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Vintage witchcraft worth watching

with 12 comments

There is nothing like a good old vintage museum. You know the kind of museum that somehow slipped under the radar of the pedagogues, museums that didn’t get modernized and turned into an amusement park with a lot of “experiences” but few, if any objects.

There are very few of them left these days, but if you’ve ever been to one, you know what I mean. Then you can understand my fascination for one of my favorite museums, the zoological museum in the town where I grew up. It consisted of huge halls where thousands and thousands of items – mostly skeletons and stuffed animals – collected for centuries from all over the world were crowding in glass cupboards in what appeared to be a big mess. I don’t think they ever had the intention to educate anyone about them. They were leftovers of some long time forgotten research.

The best part of it was the floor where they kept the yucky stuff – huge glass bottles where indefinable creatures were floating in liquid, which once upon a time probably had been clear as water, but now had turned yellow. The lack of information tickled my imagination and it the atmosphere in the most remote corners of this museum was creepier than a ghost train ride.

If you too find magic in this kind of places, I think you might like the silent film Häxan from 1922.

A curious film
This is a rather curious film, which best could be described as a documentary intending to give a historical view on witchcraft. The film consists of seven pieces and uses a number of different approaches to the topic. Some parts consist of slideshows where we get to see drawings and paintings that illustrate the practice of witchcraft in the past altered with cards with explaining texts. But the more spectacular parts, the ones I’ll remember this film for, are the dramatizations, with special effects that are far better than I would have expected from a film of this age. There are plenty of scenes that I can imagine must have been tickling, not to say shocking at this time. There is nudity, there are body parts, dark rituals, torture, ecstasy and we also get to meet the Devil himself quite a few times, impersonated by the director who seems to enjoy it quite a bit.

Häxan seems a bit randomly put together, just like a vintage museum. It’s a bit of horror and sensation, it’s a bit of lecturing, it’s a bit of drama and a bit of comedy. Once in a while the fourth wall is broken and the film starts to give out information about the actors.

It’s a bit hard to tell for sure where Benjamin Christiansen stands in the question of witchcraft. Does it exist for real or not? Regardless of which, there’s no lack of scenes that may not be terribly scary for a modern viewer, but nevertheless are funny, original and imaginative.

Not everything is for pleasure though. There are also parts that are rather unsettling and saddening, dealing with the collective madness that spread in Europe in the middle age, resulting in the death of innumerous innocent people, mostly elderly women.

A modern comparsion
The film ends with an interesting – and surprisingly modern – comparison between the treatment of “hysterical” women of today and the historical view on witches.

I’ll give the last word to Christiansen. I think he’s got some good points.

Centuries have passed and the Almighty of medieval times no longer sits in his tenth sphere. We no longer sit in church staring terrified at the frescoes of the devils. The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops. But isn’t superstition still rampant among us? Is there an obvious difference between the sorceress and her customer then and now? We no longer burn our old and poor. But do they not often suffer bitterly? And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us? Nowadays we detain the unhappy in a mental institution or – if she is wealthy – in a modern clinic. And then we will console ourselves with the notion that the mildly temperate shower of the clinic has replaced the barbaric methods of medieval times.”

Häxan is a strange creature of a film. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you’re into curiosities and can see the charm of silent films, I think it’s a must-see.

Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, DK, 1922) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

February 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Häxan

12 Responses

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  1. I saw this movie a couple of years ago. It was suprisingly good and I agree this some parts of the movie felt very modern. Mayby not a must see but an interesting film.

    filmitch

    February 15, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    • I think it should be interesting for people who are into the horror genre for instance. I suspect it’s been a source of inspiration for some directors.

      Jessica

      February 16, 2012 at 7:43 am

  2. I’d be intrigued by this if I ever get the chance to see it. From the movie point of view, and from the occult point and how the media of the time viewed it.

    Also, when next you grace the shores of the UK, allow me to recommend you to the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, and the tiny museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle in Cornwall. I think you’d appreciate them both!

    Alq

    February 16, 2012 at 2:12 am

    • That sounds like lovely little museums. I wouldn’t give up on watching Häxan. It’s got some international praise and was released in the Criteron collection a few years ago. Your library might have it.

      Jessica

      February 16, 2012 at 7:45 am

  3. I think this silent film is great, and featured it in my list of Ten Most Important Documentaries a few months back. I found it fascinating and really well made, and would like to see it again.

    Tyler

    February 18, 2012 at 3:13 am

    • Nothing escapes your sharp eye Tyler! If anyone would have this listed it would be you. I’m not sure it would qualify as one of my top 10 documentaried, but it’s interesting, that’s for sure.

      Jessica

      February 18, 2012 at 8:23 am

  4. Really strange and fascinating movie. I would love to see a restored copy of this one – on a big screen!

    http://1001movies.posterous.com/506-7

    nicolas krizan

    February 19, 2012 at 1:00 am

    • I think the copy I watched was restored by the Swedish film institute a few years ago. At least it said so on the cover. I also think there’s a Criterion release of it. But indeed I’d love to see it on a big screen. Unfortunately silent movies on big screens are rare those days.

      Jessica

      February 19, 2012 at 11:34 pm

  5. I like you analogy between museums and this movie. Maybe I should give it a go since I love the kind of museums you descirbe, especially the natural history ones. Imagive my rapture when I realised that the Stockholm Museum of Natural History displayed a moth eathen Okapi in an obscure back room 😀

    Sofia

    February 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    • It’s sad how Naturhistoriska has hidden their collections in a far distant corner, all in the name of “experiences”. I guess it’s a question of priorities and they need to modernize but still… The old fashioned way wasn’t entirely bad. I loved the mess and the room it left for imagination.

      Jessica

      February 21, 2012 at 5:08 pm

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