Monday 12 December 2016

We Don't Go Back #22: Häxan (1922)

I've written before about the weird status of the documentary with regards to fact, and how a reconstruction blurs a line between truth and fiction in its dedication to a narrative. It was something I talked about a bit with Wisconsin Death Trip, and it's just as true of Benjamin Christensen's unique 1922 film Häxan (The Witch, released in the US in 1968 as Witchcraft Through the Ages with a characteristically odd, stilted voice-over by counterculture legend William Burroughs).
The director.
This is the oldest film I've looked at for We Don't Go Back, beating Night of the Demon by 35 years, and in fact Häxan is one of the oldest long-form films I've ever seen, period. A film nearly a hundred years old (I watched the Swedish Film Institute's restoration, with the original soundtrack, and then went and watched bits of the Burroughs version). It's notorious in some circles for its weirdness, and influential on the revival of folk horror as a genre. Robert Eggers has said it was a big influence on The Witch, and watching Häxan, I can see that.
Also, the director.
It comfortably falls under the folk horror umbrella without any further elaboration but oh my word that doesn't remotely cover how irrepressibly strange, how much of a feverish nightmare this film is. I thought, when I turned Häxan on, how weird can a film be?

As it turns out, pretty weird.
The pointer indicates details of interest.
Häxan begins with pictures of apparent monsters and demons from Phoenicia and Egypt, and moves to medieval and Renaissance woodcuts. And then, these complex models and animated diagrams; an unseen hand indicates details of strange, animated diagrams of the Egyptian vault of heaven, and of the medieval cosmology of the spheres, with a wooden pointer.

A diagram of the universe. Gary Gygax would have been proud.
And then comes the dramatisation. A witch working in a cellar makes a love philtre for a woman who wants to seduce a monk. A man falls sick, and Maria the Weaver, a wizened old woman, gets accused of witchery, and it explodes into an awful sort of contagious madness. Devils climb through holes in the wall. People dressed as animals desecrate a church. An old woman gives birth to Boschean monsters. Cistercian Inquisitors torture women both physically and psychologically. Broomsticks fly.

Satan (played by the director), naked, invades dreams, presides over sabbats full of capering witches and grinning devils; and then he causes demoniac chaos in a convent by whacking a mad nun across the head with an enormous stick, and – sorry, I do realise what I've just written. Yes, it sounds completely ridiculous. Comical, even.
Satan's cudgel.
And yet somehow Häxan is so deranged by this point, so off the chart, that in its context it's as if Benjamin Christensen, with the horns stuck on his head, naked and painted red, has fully descended into the madness he's depicting. And I saw it and I sat with my hands over my mouth and I said out loud to the screen, what did I just see? Satan cudgels a woman upside the head and all the nuns descend into screaming fits and here come the terrifying Cistercians with their torments.
The Inquisition, gone to spread madness elsewhere.
It's not right. It's not right. None of it is right. Things calm down. A coda tears through the fourth wall: the old woman who played Maria the Weaver really believes in the Devil, owns a prayer book that guides you to recognise Satan and all his ways.
Only a few seconds ago, this was a lark.
He demonstrates the thumb screws for real on a volunteer; she laughs to start with, and then she screams and begs to be let go. And then the film dissolves into a coda where "hysteria" is the modern witchcraft. A woman steals compulsively, narrowly avoids being sent to an asylum. It's patronising and weird, and unsettling in a different way.
"Satan is real."
And one of the things I've read about Häxan is that the start is dry and the end goes nowhere, and the middle is where it's at. This disregards the simple fact that these parts of the film are just as bizarre in their own way. Christensen stops the film dead in its tracks and says, hey, remember this old lady? Well as it happens she really does believe in Satan. Look, here's her prayer book with a guide to recognising the Devil's works. Look, look, proof.

The diagrams and models at the beginning are a different manner of unsettling. Like the moment when that person with the haggard eyes gets up and locks the door and sits back down again, and you realise you're not going to get out until they've had their say (which I admit, doesn't sound all that traumatic if it's never happened to you. Trust me on this). This director, who literally tortures someone on screen. Who wheels out the old line about eight million people killed for witches during the witch hunting craze.1 
Actually Taweret, loving goddess of fertility and childbirth.
Who pulls out any old picture that looks like Satan to support his thesis, like the picture of Taweret, a benevolent Egyptian goddess of childbirth, and yes she's got the head of a hippo, but we're talking about Egyptian gods here and what can you do?
The corpse of a child.
It's an hour and a half of ergot poisoning transferred to celluloid, it's a nightmare, and it begins with the calm fixation on detail of the obsessive, and descending into screaming chaos, and then saying, look, this is your world now, and the screaming chaos is still here, only you can't see it.2

While Benjamin Christensen's actual mental health is a hundred per cent irrelevant, I've never seen a film that so expresses from start to finish what it's like to experience – and, from my own personal perspective, to live with – psychiatric illness. It made me intensely uncomfortable, because it reminded me of conversations with people I have known who have been ill. That whole sequence at the end where Christensen draws comparisons with "modern" delusions feels too close. Too real. The crazed woman's husband was killed in the Great War, and Christensen was making his film in a time when everyone in Europe know someone who'd died in the fighting, and that grounds it. It feels real.
Everything in the film is unreal, but at the same time, it's got a solidity to it. The whole film is caked with filth, dirt caked in the wrinkles of faces, in knuckles, a patina of age on top of the dirt making it seem like something long-forgotten, something old, something terrible and solid, that you can almost smell, can almost feel beneath your fingertips.

It shouldn't do that. It's four years off its centenary. Silent movies shouldn't do that. They're safe and mannered and distant. They're not pathologies. They're not the delusions of the schizophrenic or the obsessive laid bare for the world to see.
Witch marks.
If the baleful ghosts of Brueghel and Bosch had collaborated on a movie, they'd have made something not unlike Häxan. It's great, there's no question of that, but it is no lie to say that I have never seen anything like it.

1The whole Burning Times thing, then. Margaret Murray (in 1921, so not all that likely to have been read by Christensen before he'd made Häxan) reckoned it was nine million, and think that's where Gerald Gardner got it from. I tried to find an estimate of how many people were in fact killed for witches from the 13th to 18th centuries, but the only consensus I could find was that there's no way it's even one million, with the highest estimate I saw being 600,000 and the lowest 20,000. 20,000 is still an awful lot of innocent people. (back)

2And that's not even taking into account the cut-down American release from 1968 which has William Burroughs doing the voice over.  
Lock them out and bar the door!
Lock them out forevermore!
Nook and cranny, window, door,
Seal them out forevermore!
It brings the strangeness to another level again. (back)