The Cult Class Collection

Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922)

Starring: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt, Tora Teje, John Andersen, Benjamin Christensen

Directed by: Benjamin Christensen

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Devil in Häxen: Witchcraft Through The Ages

When Swedish/Danish horror documentary Häxen: Witchcraft Through The Ages was first released in 1922, it was received in many countries like a prototype video nasty, censored or banned for its scenes of torture and sexual perversion. Yet it begins like a fusty old lecture at Hogwarts: a quavering wooden pointer picking out the details of Malleus Maleficarum-style medieval woodcuts depicting witches, demons, monsters and Black Sabbaths.

So far so quaint and vaguely amusing. In Chapter 2, however, this dry, scholarly dissertation, transforms into a Monty Pythonesque live action reconstruction of a witch in her hovel that beautifully – if a little comically – recreates the naive woodcuts in bloody red and black hues. Next we have a witch trial, a white-robed cabal of inquisitors persecuting a hapless, toothless old crone. Clearly our erudite director understands fully the Catch 22 nature of witch trials, the helpless victims forced to indite all around them on pain of, well, more pain, really. But that doesn't stop him revelling, blow by brutal blow, in the misery of accused (and often naked) 'witches', old and young, as they are tricked into convicting themselves. The following chapter reveals more voyeuristic excess, as a convent of nuns become possessed, staggering around, wimples awry, clutching knives and blaspheming. Ken Russell eat your heart out...

Naughty nuns in Benjamin Christensen's Häxan

But besides gleefully recreating gruesome scenes of diabolical debachery, director Benjamin Christensen has a serious point to make – and here's where, to 21st century sensibilities, the whole thing gets really disturbing. Yes, the belief in witchcraft can be discounted as superstitious nonsense, nurtured in the susceptible minds of a gullible, God-fearing population with nothing to do of a weekend but enjoy a good burning; a means of forcing random mishaps and ill luck into an understandable pattern and making scapegoats of society's most marginalised, powerless people. But were these poor females not actually suffering from... hysteria?

Yes, hysteria. Caused by women's wayward wandering wombs (although to be fair to Christensen, he never actually says that – he's probably thinking more along Freudian lines of the unconscious mind concealing psychic stress behind a protective screen of hysterical symptoms. Or something.) But a hundred years on, this concept seems almost as medieval as thumbscrews.

Yet, as well as providing a macabre, kaleidoscopic montage of devilish excess, Häxan also offers a fascinating insight into turn of the century sexual politics, in which it seems women can still only be seen as femmes fatales, innocent victims or hysterical crazies. And by drawing parallels between his own times and the unenlightened dark days of the Middle Ages, Christensen makes a point that's still valid today: are we any better at including the lonely, the outcast, the different, the mentally ill, than medieval society? (Well, yes. But we could do better...)

Accompanied by a mesmerising, unsettling electronic score by composer and musician Verity Susman, the one-off performance I attended at Edinburgh's Filmhouse was an unmissable, if utterly bonkers, way to experience this truly unique film: a psychedelic trip into a lurid, patriarchal nightmare. With dancing pigs. Need I say more?

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