Review: Häxan [1922]; Witchcraft Through the Ages

Cᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ Iɴᴅᴇx —

a review by the Crow.

HÄXAN

SPOILER LEVELS at MEDIUM

Häxan (The Witch; pronounced Hexen) is a 1922 silent production by director Benjamin Chistensen. While a documentary about witchcraft at heart, the production boasts enough dramatic narrative sequences to count as a movie in its own right.

Split into seven chapters, Häxan starts by delivering an overview of the myths of witchery. Chapter One describes how earlier civilisations viewed the world, before speaking of the beings believed to exist in “hell”. This naturally leads to a discussion of witches and their connection to said beings, before discussing the activities witches were alleged to participate in, foreshadowing many of the dramatic sections that the later chapters will deal with.

A small amount of the information presented here is somewhat outdated, and much of the information is — by now — rather well-known thanks to witches being commonplace in media, but Chapter One still serves as a decent introduction for the rest of the production. Decent, barring one glaring flaw.

It takes a good thirteen minutes for the “movie” sections of Häxan to first appear. Chapter One does showcase some moving pictures, but they are brief and might lead some to believe that the entire movie will be a series of still images and clips of sets over which someone is pointing things out with a stick. This turns out not to be the case, as after the introductory chapter, the movie begins to delve into lengthy dramatic situations. That said, the introductory section definitely ages the movie. While viewers like myself might not mind it as much, most modern viewers could very well find it frustrating.

Chapter Two solves the problem by presenting a short movie concerning a woman who wishes the sorceress Karna (Ella la Cour) to fashion love potions for her. She’s in love with a “pious monk” (Oscar Stribolt), and — as expected — things don’t pan out too well for her. I won’t be going over each of the dramatised scenarios, but they’re made rather well. Considering the movie was made only a few years before Metropolis (which may some day appear on The Corvid Review), there is a standard by which to judge the quality of the work. And it does rather well — visual effects included. It holds up against the other giants of its time. One such section I cannot leave unmentioned is the “Sabbath” scene, in which we are shown a party with the Devil (played by Christensen) himself. It’s rather striking how the Sabbath sequence — and some others in the movie — push the boundaries of what we might have expected from a movie made in 1921. And of course, it’s because of the sort of content for which I claim Häxan to have pushed boundaries that the movie was banned. A particularly amusing moment happens in which Christensen has his actors line up and kiss his bottom. I would wager that’s the sole reason he cast himself as the Devil.

Häxan ends with arguments which rationalise much of the witchery that has been claimed through the ages as manifestations of mental illness or other such factors. The movie carries a certain snark with it, which grows stronger over time. Considering it’s an argument which is hitting a high point once more in recent times, it’s quite nice to see such an older movie deal with the argument.

Since the soundtrack on the Criterion Collection version may not be the original, I won’t comment on it here. Regardless, Häxan is a rather grand old production — dated as it might be. I won’t claim it to be great, but it’s a solid piece of work. Sit down for it with no expectations, and there will be value to be found.

— Crow out.


Final Ratings

THE CROW: 6.5/10


Here’s the official poster:

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