Here’s a few things you need to know about Häxan:
First, it absolutely does not screw around.
You want torture? Häxan’s got it. You want surrealism? Häxan will throw so many goat-headed puppets at you, it’ll make you wish this was Un Chien Andalou. You want a conga line of witches giving Satan rim jobs? Just hang on…
Second, it’s genre-bending in the craziest ways possible.
Though it’s been lauded as a horror film (and I challenge any of your tough guys to find a more existentially nasty bit of cinematography than it’s middle chapters), it’s also part historical drama, part documentary and part sociological examination. Created in 1922 by Danish director Benjamin Christensen, Häxan was groundbreaking for its trippy visuals and it’s absolute devotion to its subject matter. After finding a copy of Malleus Maleficarum, a nasty handbook for Inquisitors, Christensen became obsessed with the Dark Age fascination with witches, so he set out to make a movie unlike anything filmed before (or since)– a movie that seeks not only to titillate and terrify, but one that tries to explore it’s subject fully and give the viewer a true idea of the context in which these horrors occurred.
And it’s with that in mind that I can’t go on without exploring my own circumstances of encountering this film. Sitting cocooned in the darkness of Dallas’ historic Texas Theatre, nestled three rows away from the spot where Lee Harvey Oswald was wrestled into submission, enthralled by the score local musicians had specifically crafted to accompany the film, I was ready to experience this movie I’d been reading about for years. The lights dimmed, the music groaned and swelled, and then–
The giggling began.
You know what I’m talking about. That specific, pernicious type of smug snicker you can hear anywhere craft beer mixes too liberally with pop culture. Just a smattering of it here or there–whenever one of the actors affected a grimace, whenever a title card too stridently proclaimed something, just enough to cut the tension at just the right moments. Anyone on the festival circuit knows this particular music of the night all too well–the laughter of hipsters.
The early chapters brought on volley after insidious volley–even the thrillingly original music couldn’t stifle it. Every 1920’s-style affected grimace, every old-fashioned flourish, all of it was grade A millennial laughing gas.
The rabid fain in me wanted to start some matronly, energetic shushing, but my better self won out. I sipped my beer, I settled in, I let the music, eerie and strident and full of violent pain, wash over me. I wasn’t disappointed.
Häxan’s slow and scholarly opening soon gives way to something much more sinister. Its middle is a dark and rotten heart, and before we knew it, all of us, the revelers, the gigglers, the drunks, were staring straight into that lightless void.
In a deceptively simple framing story, Häxan introduces us to a medieval family whose patriarch has suddenly fallen ill. Taking the advice of a local quack, the household comes to believe witchcraft is responsible. An old beggar woman is immediately accused, and what follows is a montage of human savagery and betrayal, all the more shocking for its subtle.
The music twisted and wove around the projected faces of the suffering women, their pain captured in the simple brutality of black and white, and as I shifted in my chair, the whine of it entwining with the music’s complaint, I realized something.
The laughter had become silence.
The film ground on, and finally averted its merciless gaze from the terrors of the torture chamber to focus on more modern settings. A convent of mad nuns, WWI era widows–all of the old 1920’s tricks were back. Wide eyes, clumsy makeup, a soupcon of bathos, but the silence held.
When the final, warning title card flashed, the stillness in the theatre hummed. Seconds dragged by before the first crackle of applause. Others joined in. There was an immediate rush to the bar.
The crowd that fled from the Texas Theatre wasn’t what I’m used to seeing on a Saturday night. Quiet, withdrawn, eager to get away, they shuffled out into the bleary neon night. When they were gone, it was still quiet. Häxan’s silence filled the old theatre, and even I couldn’t bear the mordant atmosphere much longer.
What was it that so effectively killed a good time crowd’s buzz? Maybe there aren’t easy answers, but for me, I can’t help but blame the film’s nasty stab at narrative.
Häxan’s middle chapters, though written nearly a century ago, speak with particular venomousness to our world today. Through director Christensen’s lens, the audience is forced to sit by, passive and coddled, while a string of innocent women are systematically ripped to shreds. We see their minds and wills broken. We see their bodies endure torment worthy of the label “torture porn.” We want to look away or intervene, but the film’s all knowing intertitles promise more sadism, more destruction, and we have to concede. This happened. No matter what we are now, this happened in our past, and it’s still with us.
What Häxan depicts is tame compared to modern extreme cinema. But for all its old-fashioned antics, this movie holds Western culture uniquely accountable for the evils perpetrated against women. Romero made it chic to point out that humans are the real monsters, but Häxan was preaching that sermon with buckets of blackened blood long before.
As composer Curtis Heath points out, “Häxan‘s imagery was innovative for its time, and the feminist and socially-progressive themes remain relevant to the present.” Maybe it was the tense torture sequences and the surreal imagery that stopped the laughter that night. Maybe it was the blunt depiction of sex and religion mixing in the most demented ways. Maybe it was the realization that nearly one hundred years later, society has come so far, but still has so much further to go.
Standing around the Texas Theatre’s rapidly emptying bar, one patron muttered, “Oh, what a wicked world it is.” Maybe that’s a touch dramatic, but as I followed the crowd out into the night, I couldn’t help but think it was a perfect epitaph to a night of noise and silence and terror and remembering.