Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Witches

Haxan; silent horor/ documentary/ experimental film, Denmark/ Sweden, 1922; D: Benjamin Christensen, S: Maren Pedersen, Benjamin Christensen, Clara Pontopiddan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt

The film examines people's superstition through the belief of the existence of witches in the Middle ages. The stories thus depict a witch preparing a magic love potion for a woman who wants a monk to fall in love with her; the paranoia belief that Satan scares monks and seduces women in their sleep; when a man gets sick, the family think he is bewitched and thus an old woman is arrested and tortured until she confesses being a witch and participating in demonic rituals; another women is accused of being a witch and imprisoned... Finally, back in present, a doctor explains that today such symptoms can be explained as hysteria and other medical conditions.

One of the most unusual achievements from the 20s, Benjamin Christensen's "Witches" uses a triple blend of horror, documentary and experimental film for a gigantic movie case study of witches in the Middle ages, and superstition in general. The opening 15 minute prologue is 'tour-de-force' example of imaginative educational films, depicting folklore paintings of demons considered to be the cause of all diseases in Persia; a set piece of a city in a pit, surrounded by mountains and several dozens of light bulbs over it, to demonstrate the obsolete Egyptian view of the world in which the sky is held by mountains and pillars as well; and the dated geocentric view of the Universe, in which God and his angels are making planets and stars rotate around Earth - even the teacher's stick is used to explain this images. This is juxtaposed when the movie shifts towards the narrative, showing six episodes involving witches, but a one which is fairly weaker: a certain disarray is caused between this sober, scientific approach at the beginning and the realistic depiction of demons and witches, without irony, which makes one wonder what Christensen intended to say. If he intended to show that this is all naive superstition, why did he spend so much time on elaborate make up and designs of demons?

These episodic stories also seem unfinished and more bizarre than coherent, with only a few moments achieving an expressionistic charge here and there (such as the sequence of witches flying on brooms over a city). The elaborate sequence that depicts dozens and dozens of torture techniques in the Middle ages also seems out of place, and without a sense for measure (even though it offers a golden comment from the director when he writes: "You and I would also be driven to confess mysterious talents with the help of such tools, isn't that so?"). The last 15 minutes return the film on the right track by again embracing the analytical, rational mindset, in which the director explains that today many of these "witch traits" are explained with simple medical conditions. A morbid film, but with an interesting beginning and conclusion about the way people tend to imagine things and make them real purely by deciding to be so ignorant.


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