Thursday, March 08, 2007

HAXAN (1922) review

It's still hard to imagine that this film was produced in the early-1920s! Haxan shows us the vitality of Swedish film at this time--and what a time. We can bemoan the quality of commercial filmmaking today, but it should be understood that the period after WWI was unique in the history of the medium. There was still new territory to be charted, and a lot had yet to be done. Watch this film, and you will see the source (along with Murnau's seminal, 'Nosferatu' of the same year) of a LOT of contemporary horror-imagery. The Great War unleashed a flood of graphic-imagery, most of it inspired by the carnage of the battlefields. Indeed, the public of those-days had more exposure to the horrors-of-war than we do today. Many of the popular images of witches, vampires, ghosts, demons and horror-film monstrosity comes from this era, and Haxan is surely a significant-contributor to this reservoir.

Of-note, I think Ken Russell must have seen this film before making his magnum-opus, 'The Devils' (1971). Russell probably saw the Balch-version, and it fits the time-line. Incidents of sexual-hysteria in convents/nunneries are well-documented in Christensen's film (and scholarly writings), and the connection between it and outbreaks of 'possession' and 'witchery' are solid. And yes, that's a Freudian-analysis, because he wasn't always wrong, the hysteria was sexual. While we may have to strain to understand this hysteria that infected Medieval European communities, we should observe that so-called witches are regularly murdered in Africa, India and Asia. And then, there's America...

The witchhunt is a feature of most primitive, backward peasant and tribal-societies. Culturally, America fits this mould. This film is still an excellent introduction to the history of witchcraft-persecution in the West, and it's extremely watchable, even entertaining. Films like Haxan retain their power when the incarceration of the West Memphis 3 is still possible; meanwhile, the likely-murderer plays-to the iconography, obtaining a free-pass from his community. Why does human-society require sacrifices? Whatever happened in West Memphis, Arkansas when those children were murdered, it was done to satisfy some urge in the human-mind for this sacrifice to the patriarch. It brings-to-mind the Old Testament. Moloch must be fed, just as Saturn ate his own children.

Witchhunts are still with us in America, and we are a nation of Puritans. Benjamin Christensen made Haxan in 1922 as an appeal-to-reason. His thesis was that the majority of the notions of these panics came from social-conditions, mental-illness and anxiety (primarily of the sexual-variety). This connects the film thematically with 'The Devils'. We can look at these stories as distant and quaint, but they are not. Similar conditions can arise, and it was Christensen's aim to nip the witch-panics in-the-bud. Today, we call it 'satanic panic.'

The aftermath of WWI wasn't exactly a rational period, and so the director took the approach of expressionism to convey the mindset of the Medieval. It's as if the daemonic was released from the depths of the mind from the cataclysms of the trenches. James Whale was hardly alone in being affected by the Great War--all of Western civilization was. But, the compositions in Haxan are extraordinary, and are often drawn-from woodcuts and other art from each given-period. Christensen even inserts close-shots of actual engravings from museum collections, juxtaposed with his realizations of witches' sabbaths! His use of colored-tinting is effective in establishing the atmosphere of each tableau. But it isn't all grim, there are a lot of moments of hilarity. One of the funniest is when the director does a cameo as a horny-Devil, which makes Haxan a must-see. The depiction of the witch flying on her broomstick is reminiscent of the flying-scenes in Murnau's 'Faust' (1926), and shows that the optical-printing of the time was solid.

The Criterion edition is superb, you can do no better as it contains the Anthony Balch/William S. Burroughs cut of the film with the Burroughs-narration. Also, the image-quality of the 1922-cut is astounding, and must come from the camera-negative, a real treat. 1920s film-technology, we find, was very good in the right hands. One can even watch a film like this--or other equally-pristine films--and see that this was not so long-ago. In many-respects, we have changed very-little since the 1920s in America! With 'Satanic panics', 'recovered-memories', 'alien-abductions' and other social-panics, we can see the roots of such reactions (and the iconography) resurfacing even today. A must-have for Halloween parties! (Revised version from September of 2006)