Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Haxan - Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)I’ve been waiting a few weeks for this hidden gem of a silent documentary to arrive on Film4 after I asked them on twitter. It’s always a treat to take the time to view a silent film, as they are rarely on television, there are very few left in good condition due to the lack of care given to them. So when Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) was announced I decided once more to sit down and take a look.

By today’s standards of documentary making which have become more factual and more entertaining it was a real change to have a silent factual piece told in the first person. Breaking up the history of witchcraft into seven chapters which build up the history of the medieval superstition that plagued Europe for centuries before the age of enlightenment, which changed our perceptions about everything.

The first chapter stands alone in giving us depictions of the superstitions, the culture that surrounded the satanic that influenced the religion at the time, which ruled supreme, Everything was dictated by religion which lead to the fears of satanic devils that could “influence” the church leaders and eventually the people.

It’s a rich film that combines the then research with combines the artefacts with dramatisation, emphasis on the drama. Which for this film works rather well, the hysteria and nonsensical logic of the time portrayed it works. Combined with the then revolutionary special effects which have ensured this film has last. The blending of frames for dramatic effect to the costumes used in the satanic scenes, not just some rubber costume with a man inside, these really created the world of witches and witchcraft.

Thankfully there is more dramatisation that the condescending archival sections complete with pointing stick, which just winds me up, slowing down the pace of the film, but vital today to see how far we have come from the plain literal to respecting the intelligence of the audience.

In the last chapter which brings the film up to-date (to that point) a modern day explanation for all the witchcraft madness, – hysteria which can now be broken down into even finer mental disorders. We see a woman suffering from a mental illness, and how she is treated by family and people in shops Her life is plagued by the illness which causes her many problems. It’s a sensitive summation of some exciting and mad subject, which explains that with enlightened thinking all those women who were tortured, chased and burned would have suffered could have been treated far differently. The power of religion was so strong that it blinded common sense and free thinking.

It’s a product of its time that sees part of European history and brings it up to date for its time. Like other film-makers of his time Benjamin Christensen experiments in blending fact with fiction, and new techniques to create a supernatural world that is now lost.

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