Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages


I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this film, if only because my brain associates nearly two hours of silence with boredom. But I'm happy to say that I not only liked this film, I actually loved it. It's entertaining and educational, plus it's a fantastic look at early film.

Häxan is a part documentary, part fictional account/re-enactment film about the treatment of accused witches throughout history. Directed by filmmaker Benjamin Christensen, the film posits the theory that many women accused of witchcraft were actually suffering from hysteria. And while hysteria, as a medical diagnosis, has earned a dubious reputation in modern times, for Christensen to put forth such a theory was actually quite progressive for his. He makes careful note to highlight the cruelty and misery these women faced, and declares the true source of evil to be men - particularly those who tortured and killed women accused of the "Dark Arts" across Europe. Häxan, therefore, comes across as strikingly modern in both its format and its thematic arc.

Häxan's re-enactment scenes are wonderfully chilling, as well as visually stunning. It feels as if you're looking at an old German woodcut or etching. Witches sit in front of blazing fires on which cauldrons bubble; corpses are brought into their lair's for use in potions; torture devices and their mechanics are shown in horrifying detail. And while all of the scenes are frightening in a very horror film-like way, the most appalling part is what women experienced at the hands of their accusers, and those who carried out "justice." No woman, young or old, was safe from potential accusation, and Christensen is wonderful at showing us just how low the level of barbarism and depravity actually was.

I highly recommend giving Häxan a look, even if you don't typically gravitate towards old or silent film. The Criterion Collection edition, in particular, is lovingly restored and had me transfixed. The restoration is rich and evocative, with deep inky blacks and shadows jumping menacingly from the screen. As a horror fan, it was fascinating to watch, and it impressed upon me once again that the true horrors in life are real, and very very human.