Alternately academic, humorous and disturbing, “Häxan” feels like a silent documentary that derives devilish joy from its dramatic re-enactments. It’s called an essay film, and the most intertitled parts sound like the 1922 equivalent of a PowerPoint on witchcraft and medieval torture devices (via the “Malleus Maleficarum”).
Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen, who literally receives kisses on the ass on screen as the devil, “Häxan” posed the groundbreaking idea that the persecutions of women as “witches” through the ages are born of fear and misunderstanding of natural phenomena such as sleepwalking. , kleptomania and mass hysteria.
‘Häxan’ is the Swedish word for ‘The Witch’, and in our interview with Robert Eggers he revealed that this film was one of the main influences for his own 2015 film, ‘The Witch’. You can see it when “Häxan” delves into the beliefs that witches prey on unbaptized children, dance naked on the witches’ sabbath, and smear flying ointment on their backs. Eggers said the film’s close-ups also influenced “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which made Joan (and by extension, other women burned at the stake) a Christian victim of priestly/patriarchal forces.
A scene from “Häxan” takes us into a witch’s hovel, and it’s like visiting the props department for the upcoming folk horror genre. The men carry bundles of sticks (“The Wicker Man”), they unwrap a hand from one (“Blood on Satan’s Claw”), there’s a skull in the corner (“Hagazussa”), and a woman makes visit to the witch, asking for a love potion (“The White Reindeer”, “November”). We also hear of women thrown into the water to test their guilt (“Witchfinder General”).
Don’t be shocked like Pixar fans when “Häxan” ends with the word “bitch.” It happens to mean “The End” in Swedish.