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Bucket List Movie #464: Haxan (1922)

Updated on October 27, 2014
Benjamin Christensen (left).
Benjamin Christensen (left). | Source

Horror-tober continues with today's BLM, the 1922 Danish film Haxan (sometimes subtitled Witchcraft Through the Ages). A remarkably well-researched, insightful, gruesome, and emotionally wrenching thesis on the treatment of women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, Haxan doesn't shy away from images of the devil (played by the film's director, Benjamin Christensen), corpses being used for curses, and pagans literally kissing the devil's ass.

Set design by Mr. Rogers.
Set design by Mr. Rogers. | Source

Haxan is technically a documentary, with dramatized sequences. Though it's more niche that your typical documentary, I have to wonder if perhaps it inspired documentaries with dramatizations or re-enactments, such as Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. Haxan plays like the most twisted educational film ever, a teacher's pointer tracing along graphic illustrations and engravings depicting animals being used for potions, women being thrown in rivers to prove they're not witches, and, er, that whole devil's butt kissing. We are also shown rituals that were allegedly used in witchcraft during that time, including fingers from dead convicts, snakes, and baby's corpses (the model they use is still realistic enough to make any modern viewer cringe).

Why, I believe that butter churn is a metaphor for something.
Why, I believe that butter churn is a metaphor for something. | Source

What Haxan boils down to is that people either believed certain women (if not most women) were witches, or were possessed by the Devil, or were freely in cahoots with the Devil. Christensen portrays the Devil as pure id personified, a squirrelly figure with a tongue that won't stay in his mouth. We see him lure women out of bed to have his way with them, and tempting them with dreams of riches just out of reach.

The film starts out with encyclopedic entries and re-enactments about witchcraft, but it eventually becomes a fictionalized narrative about a poor old woman, Marie the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld), who is accused by the wife of the town's printer of witchcraft. Marie is taken by the cruelly pious monks, who practically salivate at the idea of punishing someone, anyone, who might be a witch. Marie, after being duly tortured (we are given a brief montage of how medieval torture devices work by a placid volunteer), turns the accusations against women who have wronged her in the past. At first it seems like a liberating, "hell yeah!" moment, until you realize this will do nothing but create a cycle of hate, fear, suspicion and cruelty that will never end. The woman who initially made the accusation against Marie is tried as a witch, but it doesn't even feel like karmic justice, because she's just as much a victim of ignorance and good old-fashioned crappy information as everyone else.

Will the vicious circle never end?
Will the vicious circle never end? | Source

I can't say for sure if it was Christensen's intent, but nonetheless I think Haxan is an accidental feminist picture. It's already ahead of its time with its brief glimpses of nudity and graphic depictions of satanic rituals (the butt kissing and what not), but Haxan also addresses how women were treated in the Middle Ages. The title cards say that old women weren't safe, but neither were young ones. Old women were charged for looking like what people believed witches looked like, but young women were suspect for being attractive, and thereby "tempting" defenseless men. The film has a clever framing device, where it's revealed that women back then suffered from "hysteria", which brought about hallucinations, erratic behavior, and lack of feeling in parts of the body, and that is why they were believed to be witches. We are shown how women with hysteria in 1922 were treated, and it's little better, doctors treating them with condescension and mild disdain. I appreciated what Christensen was trying to tell us, but the film lost me when a woman who has been institutionalized is being forced to take a tepid shower, and it's compared to how women were once burned at the stake. Um, no, I'm sorry, but I think I speak for everyone when I say a tepid shower in the presence of a nurse will beat being burned at the stake any day of the week.

Still, Haxan is an important film, 92 years later, because society still doesn't know how to treat women, old, young, or anything in between. Girls are coddled and stifled, young women are ogled and patronized, middle-aged women are ignored and belittled, and old women are reviled and discarded. Even with the advent of feminism and how far women have come, we aren't even halfway there. To paraphrase Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady, the difference a lady and a witch is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. Praise be, we're certainly treated better, but with the daily reports of violence against women, and all the repulsive ways people find to shame women (be it slut-shaming, fat-shaming, age-shaming, etc.) it appears that society has yet to learn how to treat a lady.


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