Film Review - Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages
With devils temptation, cooking babies, and punishments for witchcraft Häxan is one of the true horror films.
I had the true pleasure of attending the special screening of this film at Home Manchester, as part of "Music and Film" with a brilliantly accompanying live score by Josephine Oniyama and students from the Music Technology courses at Salford University.
A Swedish-Danish silent horror film produced in 1922, written and directed by Benjamin Christensen. This was one of his most know-for films, and when you watch it and consider the scare factor and taboo-ness of the film in the 20's (most of which was heavily censored in most countries), you could understand why he would rise to fame. With it's mix of stills and imagery from texts such as historic witches' Grimoires and the early video footage from the dramatisations of some of the medieval stories, it could be classed as one of the first docu-dramas of it's time.
The style and look of this black and white film is truly captivating with it's dark haunting ambiance, which Christensen and his cinematographer only filmed in the evening to perfect the darkened style in the footage.
The film is in 4 different sections and styles. The first delves into stills and pictorials of demonic images, witches and symbols, along with a solar system diagram that in my opinion not only links with the moon phases and how they linked with the devil, but the support that the devils and witches were also "fact" just like the sun and planets were. The second part is a series of clips or "vignettes" (short impressionistic scenes) of people being bewitched either by the devil itself, or by lotions and potions made by witches. The third section focuses on the family of a dying man and how they accuse an old local woman as a witch who has cast a spell on him. Then the sections are finished off with a look at the links with religion and sees a series of women, who in today's society we might say have mental health problems, but back in Haxan times would have *obviously* been witches.
With still text screens to describe some of the conversations shown in the vignettes, it's easy to understand and engage with the footage, with a final few minutes dedicated to the original imagery we see at the start of the film.
Christensen, who also directed The Haunted House (1928), also appears to have tried his hand at wooden carved puppetry and some stop-frame animation. One of the scenes show a women waking up ecstatic surrounded by shiny coins, only to sadly see the coins move of their own accord up and out of the door. It's a bit obvious that it's a reverse shot, but for the 20's it would have been astonishing stuff!
Originally the film was completely silent, then in 1968 it was cut down and a jazz soundtrack was added in, and now in 2015, a fantastic live score was produced for the Home screenings.
The contrast of trance music and witches flying on broomsticks, and soulful singing with medieval scriptures was jolty and strange at first ear, but grew into a fantastic suspension of disbelief quickly, with the first (and my favourite) track from Oniyama singing "witches brew". It's soulful minor key mantras blended throughout the screening into mixtures of trance, electronica and synth based sounds, took the audience on an adventure with the film. Oniyama's voice had a variety of styles and she reminded me of the deep tones of Lianne Le Havas. Before long the music melted into the film as if it was the original soundtrack.
It was great to watch the artists at work, moving gracefully from Korg, to sampler, to drum pads, and were totally in tune with each other. It was an added pleasure to not only watch the film, but also watch them at work.
The contrasts of archive imagery and drama; the 20's film and modern day digital sounds; and the contrast of traditional image of what witches were and the clairvoyants of today were all incorporated into this screening. The questions throughout the film focus on what is witchcraft and what does it look like, and how we might interpret what witchcraft really is.
My Favourite Bits
I absolutely love watching live accompaniments of old black and white films, I've seen Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari before and this has got to be my favourite live viewing so far! The contrasts, mixtures or artists and instruments, and the beautiful surroundings of the cinema with plush red seats at the newly built Home in Manchester, just sweetened the deal to an amazing film.
One Line Review
A fantastic first horror film for the world, a great use of styles and edits, with a fabulous haunting live music score.
Other films similar in style and content I'd recommend include Metropolis (1927), Exorcist (1973), Nosferatu (1922) and any of the Filmography from Christensen.