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 | demon | demons
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen and Maren Pedersen
This was a film that when I 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. Prior to my first viewing, I did some research prior to seeing this and learned this was quite innovative with some of the things they showed which 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 this movie is broken into seven chapters. The first one gives the history of witchcraft and superstition to which would shape the Christian beliefs that would follow it. We are given different images and they’re explained through the title cards. This explains how early man thought the universe revolved around him as well. What is also interesting is that we are getting important aspects of the pictures we are seeing pointed out to us as well to ensure the point is made.
The second chapter really delves into more pictures. These are focusing on how the rituals were performed. Also, 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 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 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 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, which is pretty much in a nutshell what we 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. 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 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 pointing out the lunacy of the inquisitions and how none of these people were 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 find this to be interesting as there are modern day applications here that fit for the current situations. I mean we hear the word witch-hunt in the lexicon of news regularly. Going along with this, we see that despite more education and knowledge, we still handle situations with just a more modern take on what we happened in the Middle Ages.
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 a ‘witch’ was someone suffering from mental illness. The film flips its stance though and side with religion, at least to an extent. If they would have kept their course with looking at things scientifically, I would have been on board the whole way. Regardless of my beliefs or what the movie is stating, it does make some valid points.
To shift to the pacing, both times I’ve seen this movie I’ve watched the version that was 105 minutes in length or so. I originally thought that this movie runs too long. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. I can still see that it does get a bit repetitive. There is a shorter version from what I’ve read that runs about 30 minutes or so shorter. I would like to see how that one flows and what was left out. Other than that, I do think this is edited in a way that was quite interesting I like the progression we get through the information presented.
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 must 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 Devil. He did a good at being creepy and trying to corrupt those around him. The rest of the cast I thought was fine for the roles that they played. It is interesting to see when they’re accusing each other of being witches. Seeing what they’re endure as part of the inquisition bothered me, I’ll be honest there. It worked overall.
Shifting to effects, I’m quite impressed if I’m honest. The look of The Devil and all the other nightmarish creatures were good. I’m not going to lie; I was creeped out watching this. They also do some early stop-motion with a smaller creature that was spooky. We get some tricks of film to show witches flying on brooms and souls leaving the body. There was a special feature showing how this was done was interesting as well. This 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 is a documentary of sorts. It adds a layer with that.
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 or not. I will say though, the one that came with what I watched 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 and now giving it a second watch. 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 bringing the concepts to life with re-enactments. I like that element being a part of this. The acting is over the top, which you would expect from the silent film era. Christensen though does a good Devil here if I’m honest. I thought the effects were state of the art for the 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