Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Häxan (1922) - Benjamin Christensen

Strange to think that Denmark and to a lesser extent Sweden were once the big boys of the silent film industry in Europe. But they were, of course a huge war is all it takes to shift the balance a little, but for a while this is where the best films were being made. Benjamin Christensen was not only one of the top directors of his day but he was also a fine actor too. In this strange documentary/feature hybrid he did both, excellently.

Now I'm going to be honest here, this is the only film of Christensen's that I've seen, so I'm not really able to judge how it sits with the rest of his work. Look it up on line and you'll see it's universally hailed as his masterpiece. But that could just be that people have seen naff all else by him too, but can't bring themselves to 'fess up. Anyway the word masterpiece is an appropriate one to use to describe this treat of a film.

Now after spending the day traveling home from England yesterday, all I could think about was what would I watch when I finally got a chance to sit down alone and sink into a film. Slouching around the airport seeing fellow travelers (no not the type that juggle and have dreadlocked kids), dealing badly with the news that their flights were cancelled, it was this film that I kept popping into my head.

Split into seven segments all connected, but not necessarily by plot (of which there is none really) the film moves along at a rapid pace (for a silent film from the 20's). It's not quite McG, but then you wouldn't want it to be would you? Christensen spent years researching the various tales of witchcraft in Europe, and it shows. The first 15 minutes or so sets the scene by going through a series of prints/paintings/texts about witches. Taking it's time to explain just what is going on within the frame, sometimes with the use of a handy pencil being directed at the image in question so that we don't miss a thing. After this Christensen recreates certain scenes such as the trial of a witch, the Devil seducing womenfolk all the usual malarkey you'd expect from a film whose title translates as The Witch.

Christensen himself plays the Devil, and his portrayal of Old Nick is possibly the greatest I have ever seen. Yep even better than Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, cough cough. Christensen has the same knack for finding faces as his fellow countryman Carl Dreyer. Dreyer of course would make what could be argued as possibly the greatest silent film ever, The Passion of Joan of Arc just six years after this. Both films share a common theme, that of women being accused of witchcraft. Unlike Dreyer's film though most of the camera set ups are static in this film. However it does do some things that are extremely out of place for a film from this era, and is in fact quite post modern in a Godard sort of way. One of the actress's in the film is shown trying out a thumb screw as herself and not as a charater, while in another scene we are told a story about another of the actresses. Hardly racy by todays standards but very weird for the 20s.

Then there is the gore, a finger being pulled off of an already dismembered hand, and a baby being drained over a boiling pot are just two of the images that will stay with me long after the rest of the film has faded from memory. But I think the thing that impressed me most of all was the final segment of the film. It's set in modern times (1920s), and tries to address just what it was that made people consider others to be witches, and how the same things would be dealt with now. It works really well, and concurs with something I was thinking about myself whilst watching the film. Which was just how awful life was back in the middle ages, that basically someone totally innocent could be dragged from their home, tortured until they confess to whatever they are being asked to confess to and then executed. Those were harsh old fucking times, but then I thought about the poor sods at Guantánamo Bay and realised things haven't changed that much really.

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