Sunday, September 8, 2013

Silent Sundays: Haxan (1922)


“The belief in sorcery and witchcraft is as old as mankind itself.”

I know it is only the beginning of September but to me it is Fall (even though today it was 93 degrees where I live!) and that means beautiful colors, pumpkin spice flavored everything you can imagine, gorgeous apples, and spooky ghost stories. If you think about it October is only a few weeks away and Halloween will be here tomorrow. I got a jump on the spooky stuff early with the silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages from 1922. Although very much dated it is a film I would pick to sit through with my friends around Halloween. 
Haxan is broken down into seven parts. The first part is a documentary. Writer and director Benjamin Christensen brings us through the history of witchcraft and some of the main beliefs of the people during the Middle Ages. The people believed that witches went out into the woods in the middle of the night to ceremony with the devils of evil. To get there they would be rubbed with a witches lotion that could make them fly. Once at the ceremonies they would perform evil rituals and drink blood from babies. 
The second part is filmed as a movie-documentary. The year is 1488. Witches have taken bodies from the gallows to use in their remedies and potions. A woman goes to the witches for a potion to soften the heart of a monk. The potion works and the woman comes back for another potion this time one that will make him have the heart of a little boy. The woman goes to the witches a third time. The witch gives the woman an ointment to smear on the monk that will make him come to  her bed chamber in the middle of the night. Two men in town dig up a body and bring it back to their home. When they put the body on a table they say a prayer to God that they are cutting up the body for science to try to help cure diseases. Their housekeeper sees them with the body and runs through the town saying the men are sorcerers. They are an example of thinking in the Middle Ages. The same night the Devil comes to a woman as she sleeps and tempts her to come away with him. The Devil can take even a beautiful young woman not just old ugly women. 
The third part takes place in Italy. A young woman named Anna is worried about her husband. He fell into a deep coma so fast she claims that only a witch could have put him under so quickly and so deeply. Anna points the blame on an old woman, a weaver, named Maria. Maria has come to Anna’s house looking for food. All the women in the house think Maria is evil. Anna runs to the monastery to the priest to tell them about Maria. 
The fourth part is Maria’s torture and trial. The monks do whatever they can to make the poor old woman confess to being a witch. She tells them she cannot confess what she does not know. Under sever torture Maria confesses that she is a witch, she has gone to a ceremony where devils and witches come together. Maria says the names of other women most of them are women who were cruel to her
The fifth part has the town wardens going after Anna. When Anna had gone to the monastery to report Maria she touched the arm of the monk John. He tells another monk that he has to be punished he has become spellbound by Anna. The poor maiden has her child taken away from her and has been stripped of her clothes and put into rags. In the prison the head monk tells another monk to trick Anna into confessing. The monk tells her that if she can show him how to make thunder from a barrel of water he will let her go and give her child back. Anna just touches the water the head monk labels her a witch and has her taken to the stake. 
The sixth part explains the torture devices that were used. Seeing the devices it is no wonder the prisoners would falsely confess. We are shown the story of how nuns went crazy and did so apparently under the guidance of the Devil. The tempted attempted a woman to take a knife and pierce the Holy Eucharist. All the other nuns would catch the craziness all claiming the Devil is making them do so. 
The seventh and last part is Christensen’s modern explanation of what could have afflicted the people convicted of being influenced by the Devil. Modern women who are old and ugly are now put in nursing homes. In Medieval times old ugly sick women would be labeled as witches. All the women who were labeled possessed could have been suffering from nervousness. Christensen demonstrates that a sleepwalker was like the nun who took a knife to the Eucharist and in her defense acted out and became hysterical. Christensen also demonstrates how a modern woman became depressed and hysterical after her husband died in the War. In modern times the woman is treated by a doctor and more people are accepting of mental issues. 
Haxan has a really interesting story. Benjamin Christensen made a very different kind of film not only for the 1920s but for today. This type of film would most likely never have become a mainstream film we would see something like this on a cable channel during Halloween. It seems to me that Christensen knew the type of film he wanted to make and knew what would keep the audiences’ attention because not for one moment was I bored it was a truly interesting story. He kept the points he made in the opening about the beliefs of the people from the Middle Ages and the torture devices throughout the film. There are some scenes in the film that are outrageously dated and seen with today’s modern eyes they are hilarious and silly. At the same time I can see how the scenes with the devils and monsters would have scared people straight in the 1920s. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is one of the best and most entertaining films I have seen.