haxan | benjamin christensen | elisabeth christensen | maren pedersen | documentary | fantasy | sweden | denmark | clara pontoppidan | witch | witches | devil | elith pio | oscar stribolt | tora teje | john andersen | poul ruemert | karen winther | kate fabian
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen and Maren Pedersen
This was a film that when I actually got turned on to listening to podcasts. The title came up a few times and it was intriguing. As someone who took history of cinema classes in college, I didn’t hear about this there, but I’ve been into learning the history of the genre that I love. I actually did some research some months back as well and this one was actually quite innovative and some of the things they showed were a bit racy as well. The synopsis is fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft, from its page roots to its confusion with hysteria in modern Europe.
Now as this synopsis states, this is broken into seven chapters. The first one is really just giving the history of witchcraft and how this actually shaped the Christian beliefs that would follow it. We are given different images and they’re explained through the title cards, because if you haven’t gathered from the year this came out, it was from the 1920’s. This actually explains how early man thought the universe around him worked as well.
The second chapter really delves in to more pictures, but a lot of that was how they actually did their rituals. This actually had something very interesting in this section that we see a woman who wants a monk, Oscar Stribolt, to fall in love with her. A witch, Maren Pedersen, offers her two different types of potions and we get to see how they would play out if she uses them. An ointment is then used which would give her all of her desires, which I really think is showing an issue that comes with Christianity. It is a common belief in the past that women shouldn’t have carnal desires. Sex for them really should just be something for bearing children and if women enjoyed it, then they had to be bewitched.
From here, the rest of the chapters really just show how terrifying it was to live in the Middle Ages and then giving us what more modern looks at witchcraft would be. The most terrifying part is actually the inquisition, their tactics and how quickly you could be accused of being a witch. This brought on torture and their belief system of who a witch is and isn’t, is quite scary.
Despite the films’ running time, that is pretty much in a nutshell what we actually see here. Since this is portrayed mostly like a documentary and then re-enactments of the information they are laying out, I wanted to keep the recap a bit shorter. I do think there’s a lot of good information though for sure. There’s also quite a bit of creepy imaginary here as well.
The first thing that I really wanted to delve into with my analysis was that I thought writer, director and even star Benjamin Christensen did a great job at laying out all of the information. I loved the old drawings that are used and his breakdown of them makes a lot of sense. I could tell there was a lot of research done and I appreciate it. I also really liked that during the first few re-enactments, he is literally pointing out the lunacy of the inquisitions and how none of these people were probably witches. During the pagan times, I bet there were. It was a more primitive time. The movie seems to be pointing out that through the methods used, innocent people were tortured into admitting things and their tests were quite fallible. I actually find this to be interesting as there are modern day applications here that actually fit for the current state of affairs. I mean we hear the word witch-hunt in the lexicon of news regularly.
An issue though that did arise for me is that he final chapter, where things are looked at for what was consider ‘modern’ becomes an issue. I do believe and agree that at times, what was considered to be a ‘witch’ was actually someone suffering from mental illness. The film seems to flip its stance though and side with religion. If they would have kept their course with looking at things scientifically, I would have been on board the whole way.
To shift to the pacing, the version that I watched was 105 minutes in length or so. I will admit, I think that was too long. It does feel that the movie kind of just kept showing similar things over and over. I do believe there is a 75 minute version and I do now want to seek that one out to see if it plays better. I like what they’re putting out there for sure, so that could work better for me if it doesn’t feel as repetitive. Other than that though, I do think this is edited in a way that was quite interesting I like the progression we get through the information presented. Even though the last chapter is problematic for me with the rest of the movie, I still am fine with how this ended.
Now since this is a silent film, the acting can be difficult to talk about sometimes. They are normally stage actors or people with little or no acting experience as this is early in the history of cinema. There tends to be overacting as they have to since they cannot convey through speech. With that said, I think that across the board it is solid. Shout out to Christensen as he portrays the The Devil. I think he actually did a really good at being creepy and trying to corrupt those around him. I have no negatives here for what we got.
Shifting to effects, I’m actually quite impressed if I’m honest. The look of The Devil and all of the other nightmarish creatures were actually really good. I’m not going to lie, I was actually creeped out watching this. They also do some early stop-motion with a smaller creature that worked for me and we get some tricks of film to show witches flying on brooms and souls leaving the body. I think this actually is done better than some things shown well after this if I’m honest. The film is shot very basic, but that goes back to be early cinema there. This actually is kind of a documentary, I don’t have any issues that either.
The last thing to cover would be the soundtrack. Now I don’t know the version I watched had the original score that was coupled here. I will say though, the one that came with what I watched actually legit made me feel uneasy. It fit perfectly for what they were going for and raised the tension for the scenes. It is interesting though since this really doesn’t play the say way a film we watch made today would work, but for the re-enactments, it really did make it feel scarier than it probably should have if I’m going to be perfectly honest.
Now with that said, I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing this film. It does a lot of good things and I like the approach of being a documentary film. We get the actual drawings from the past and actually bringing them to life with re-enactments. This is an interesting concept, but one that I can see with early cinema. I do think the version I watched was a little bit long, but I do think there are still some very tense moments for sure. The acting is over the top, which you would expect from the silent film era. Christensen though does a really good devil here if I’m honest. I thought the effects were pretty state of the art for the time period. You can tell how it was shot is from the era. I’m not sure if the soundtrack coupled is the intended one, but I think they did a great job with how eerie it was. I will warn you, this is from the 1920’s and in black and white. If that’s an issue, I’d avoid this. If this sounds interesting and you like the history of cinema as well as the horror genre, give this a go.
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10