Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Left Field Cinema: Haxan - Witchcraft Through the Ages (Denmark: 1920)

Hidden Classics: Haxan - Witchcraft Through the Ages
by Mike Dawson
Left Field Cinema

Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages is a part documentary, part dramatisation about the nature of witch craft, and of those who sought to destroy it. Moving at different stages through the age of man it addresses different notions of the “Witch”, what they were believed to be capable of, and how they operated.

The more interesting areas in the film examine those who would persecute the so-called “witches” through either genuine religious intolerance and fear, or a corrupt patriarchal dominance; relishing the opportunity to stamp out any independent femininity under the guise of hunting for minions of Satan. One particularly impressive section sees a household of woman calling the local monks (or judges in this case) to take an elderly woman away from their home. The old woman is tortured into confessing her witch craft, then subsequently confesses that the woman who implicated her are her fellow witches as well – then naturally all the other woman are executed despite the obvious retaliatory motivation for the deception. The film also examines how the folklore had come to fruition. Still images of various cultures ideas of hell, heaven, and the celestial bodies are presented until the eventual creation of the “Witch” is revealed.

Banned in every country in Europe at the time of release and with various edits of the film released over the years, some of which were lobotomised by the censors, others placed jarring narration over the action instead of the stills which break up the film like most from this era. It is easy to see why this film was met with such wide spread rejection, images of love potions created with the key ingredient of human finger, the devil sexually attacking women, boiling babies, women giving birth to demons. All of which, although antiquated in their presentation and appearance, are still distressing on different levels to this day. Possibly the films most horrific sequence involves an examination of the types and the uses of torture devices that were primarily employed to extract confessions from the accused “Witch”; simple demonstrations of such vicious and brutal devices which can still, and arguably will always make audiences squirm.

Haxan - Witchcraft Through The AgesHaxan has an unusual streak of humour running through it, some of it intentional, some of it not, but it is still refreshing to be able to laugh at some moments in such a serious films. Indeed a lot of the humour comes from the complete absurdity of the tests used by the monks to detect witchcraft at work; for example binding young women and throwing them into a river, if they float then they’re a witch, if they sink then thank God for the blessing of their innocence! Prominent violence and sexuality in this film is surprising for the time in which it was made, and was doubtlessly shocking to those who viewed it in the 1920’s. The draw backs of silent films are known to many, the theatrical acting, broken narrative, the poor quality of the image, the obvious special effects – however all of these problems are indicative of the time, and if the viewer can see past those issues, Haxan is still at its core a film to be seen by anyone interested in the subject or the history of world cinema, of which this is definitely an important part.

The re-release on DVD of Haxan coincides with a limited cinema release of the 1922 controversial film. A recent performance of this film at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds was accompanied by a new score (also available on the Tartan DVD) by Geoff Smith, who performed for over an hour and a half on three new prototype Hammer Dulcimer’s and created a live score for the film almost single handed. The result was quite effective, breathing new sinister life into a film which is over eighty years old. The original score is antiquated, and like so many scores of the silent era, doesn’t fit the mood of the piece, film scoring as a measured art in itself only developed later. Not to say Smith’s score is definitive, however it is certainly superior to the predecessors, with greater flair and imagination applied. Credit must also go to Smith for his energy and ability to keep the score interesting for the extended runtime, with only a few seconds to switch between his instruments. Had the film itself been less interesting, the audience would have probably found themselves watching his performance instead… A silent film with live music is an experience that every cinema enthusiast will appreciate seeing. Watching a film the way people used to in the early years of motion pictures.

To Listen to the Analysis

Link to the Introduction

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