Haxan (1922)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Haxan</strong> (1922)

(On Cable TV, May 2018) The 1920s were very much an experimental time for movies—they progressed to a point where the technology was reliable enough to make movies, but there wasn’t yet an accepted grammar nor storytelling best practices for telling those stories in the most effective way. This explains why the movies of the time can often appear so odd to us: They were still figuring out how to make movies in a very literal sense. In this contest, Haxan makes a bit more sense, because on its own it’s a bizarre, almost baffling film. It begins in documentary mode, as the filmmaker informs us about witchcraft lore through presentation of historical documents unearthed through his research. But then, as the film progresses, more frequent “recreations” illustrate his narrative, portraying the acts of witches and the demonic presence that they cause. Before long, we’re seeing nudity, violence, sexual perversion and all of the hallmarks of a horror film—supposedly for our edification in learning more about these practices, but who’s to say where the line is between information and titillation? (This wouldn’t be the last time salacious material clothed itself under documentary aims—see the history of the erotic film before pornography became mainstream in the early 1970s.)  I have a curious admiration for writer/director Benjamin Christensen for getting away with as much as he did here under such pretences—while Haxan is decidedly tame by today’s standard, it considerably exceeds what would be the Hollywood standard from the thirties to the sixties under the Hays Code. There’s also some clever irony in the film’s conclusion, which brings everything full circle to the 1920s present and asks pointed questions about the then-current treatment of “hysterical” women in psychiatric institutes. What was witchcraft could also be a psychological problem, and that’s the kind of somewhat nuanced take on the topic that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a film of its era. The overall effect is one of fascination—what if filmmaking had progressed in that direction rather than what we know today? Haxan remains quite fascinating, and holds up as one of the few films of the 1920s to be worth a look today, as much for what it is than what it represents in time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *