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Häxan is a vivid – but silent - exploration of witchcraft through the ages, from pioneer Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen. Fact and fantasy blend in this bizarre and atmospheric docu-drama, exposing imagined rituals like witches kissing the devil’s ass. A groundbreaking, visually stunning journey into the superstitious labyrinth that was the breeding ground for concepts of witchcraft. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Whenever primitive man is faced with something incomprehensible, the explanation is always: witchcraft and evil spirits – so states one of the first title cards in this unique film. Benjamin Christensen (a suitable name for someone exploring witchcraft) clearly had a sophisticated mind, since his proposition, as argued in the film, is that in our ignorance, mankind has attributed evil to those who were merely mentally ill.

Christensen’s endeavour seems cinematically clunky at first; title cards between illustrative images and some dramatised scenes. But this technique gives way to more sophisticated filmmaking. And there are two extraordinary aspects to the film: first, this illustrated lecture tackles one of mankind’s most obstinate weaknesses – the demonisation of anyone ‘different’. Secondly, it was made when cinema was barely a toddler, and using it for the enlightenment of audiences seems to me to be an inspired step.

After about 10 minutes (Part 1) Christensen delivers the first dramatisation: it’s a witches hovel in 1488. Karna the witch is requested by a client to prepare a love potion for a monk. If there is any doubt that this is Christensen’s sense of humour, the doubts are dispelled in the next scene, when we see the buxom wench serve a meal to the object of her affections (a rotund old fart of a monk) – and the potion takes instant effect. He smiles at her –and she’s soon back at Karna, asking for something stronger. This time, the disgusting old monk chases her round the table, into the woods and back inside the house for a pash.

A handful of early special/optical effects (laboriously created – no wonder it took him two years to complete) add to the film’s enjoyment. But the film’s seriousness of purpose is also evident. We see, in a recreation of a Middle Ages witchhunt, the power of superstition and how, out of ignorance, the Christian world inflicted such misery on so many, for so little.

The silence of the film exerts its own intensity on the viewer, and turns us inwards, to contemplate what we see. Christensen didn’t set out intentionally to work us over like this, but it’s a curious thing that silence can be so powerful as part of the language of film.

Published June 28, 2007

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Premiere Screening, World Movies Channel :
8:30pm Tuesday July 3, 2007
Director: Benjamin Christensen (1879 – 1959)
Documentary (silent) Denmark/Sweden (1919 -1921)
Repeat: 12.15pm Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Encore screening: 7pm Sunday July 8, 2007
Repeat: 11.25am Monday July 9, 2007

Häxan is featured in the book ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’

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