Saturday, 26 October 2013

Haxan (1922)

Haxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) is a silent black and white Swedish documentary on witchcraft from the 1920s. Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Double double.
There's not much point giving a plot breakdown for Haxan. There isn't really a plot, as such, just interlinking episodes connected by factual background information. We see some bad medieval ladies casting spells and partying with Satan. We see a couple witch trials. We jump to the modern era and Christensen makes his case (probably progressive in the 20s) that witchcraft was really mental illness. The film ends with the abrupt accusation "SLUT", which is apparently Swedish for "The End".

I was really rooting for Haxan, really ready to like it, if only because "so I saw this awesome silent Swedish documentary on witchcraft"would be such a great way to start a conversation. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged well. Both the documentary and horror genres were in their infancy in the 20s, and Christensen isn't particularly prophetic on either front.

I love silent movies and think they're often unfairly criticized, but there's a lot to criticize here: the inconsistent acting, the occasionally ludicrous costumes, fact that nothing, literally nothing, happens for the first quarter-hour. The biggest problem is that no one on Haxan seems to have realized that what you don't see, or only think you see, is much scarier than what you do see. Every time Christensen fills his frame with cavorting demons and leering devils (and he's very fond of this) they get further from scary and closer to cute.

Finally, the Wagner score Criterion chose to accompany this film was apparently true to authorial intent, but that doesn't make it easier for a modern audience to take seriously. I can't be the only one who hears certain melodies and immediately thinks of Bugs Bunny sitting on a pony, batting his eyelashes.

If you were a teenage boy in the 1920s, Haxan would have been a good way to see naked girls. Beyond that, it's hard to recommend.

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