Twitter Plot Summary: A documentary about the history of witchcraft. The Devil is the best character by a long distance.
Released in 1922, Benjamin Christensen’s silent horror documentary about the history of witchcraft is a stunning effort that belies the era it was made in, and proves that you don’t need dialogue or “modern” production techniques to make a film that is compelling and has a powerful premise. Whilst this is a documentary, it is made up primarily of sequences performed by actors. Apparently The Devil wasn’t available for filming that day, and Dave Grohl wouldn’t be born for another 40-odd years.
The film opens with a pictorial history of belief through the ages, and how witches came to be believed as an evil presence due to their affiliation with The Devil himself. As the film progresses, we experience several further sections discussing witchcraft, covering everything from medieval superstitions to mental health problems to how terribly evil old women really are. Or rather, that’s what Häxan would want you to think.
It’s easy to understand why it caused so much outrage at the time of release. Most notably is its apparent glorification of witchcraft and Hell, which would not have gone down well in the religious furore of the era. Then there are scenes such as where the witch rips off a corpse’s finger to add it to her potion, and the Devil appearing to sway people away from the light. The depictions of torture and sexual perversion are hardly explicit, but again, if you look at it from the perspective of somebody seeing it for the first time in 1922, you can see why it caused so much outrage.
But then by modern standards it almost feels quaint, a representation of a much more innocent time. The Devil is frequently and unintentionally amusing, waggling his tongue and scaring old women while he makes potentially rude gestures. In fact he stands out as the most memorable character in the whole film, but that might be more to do with his frankly outrageous attempts at bedeviling people rather than anything more sinister.
But this unintentional humour is balanced out by some impressive special effects for the time – witches flying over the rooftops is a particular highlight, as are the costumes worn by the demons who engage in the ritualistic sacrifice of babies. Christensen’s direction is hardly extravagant, but then it doesn’t need to be. It tells a great story with no dialogue, and the performances, whilst very typical of the era, are still engaging to this day.
The most powerful aspect of the whole production is its final moments which discuss how the superstitions of the past led to what were innocent yet sick people being victimised and killed. Even by the early 1920s various psychological illnesses had been identified, and it’s this which Christensen focuses on. Were these people accused of witchcraft merely people with mental health problems? It stands a good chance, and it makes you grateful that even by 1922 we had transitioned into a slightly more enlightened era. Now, if only there was something we could do about homeopathy.