By Jerome Reuter
Though it’s time has long since past, the silent film era remains the single most influential period in film history. Many precedents would be set for the future of all films to come. D.W. Griffith proved elaborate long spanning narrative films could be possible. Jon Cocteau would apply the mechanics of poetry to celluloid . F.W. Murnau and Fritz lang would usher in the era of the expressionist film. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would make the world laugh with the comedy picture. Early scream legend Lon Chaney would scare audiences worldwide, with his creative use of make up techniques. Not to mention, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein would pioneer the techniques of editing and montage, that are still un use today.
My personal favorite of the old silent films is Haxan:Witchcraft Through The Ages, released in 1922. Directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen, it’s absoultely amazing how well it holds up, even today. Haxan is a chilling narrative of Europe’s dark history as well as it’s connection to it’s present. In a sense, it could also be considered one of the worlds first documentary films.
Addressing a dark part of history is a challenge for any documentary filmmaker. One has to be objective, as well as honest. Presenting information, and not clouding any of the facts that the audience might not want to know about. In this sense it was addressing a period of European history known as the burning times. This was a period of mass-hysteria and rampant paranoia, regarding the existence of witchcraft. This was brought on by a German publication of many misconceptions of witchcraft, called the Malleus Maleficarum. It’s more commonly known as the “Hammer of Witches.”
The film is essentially 3 parts. The first segment is an overview of the belief in demonology in Ancient Egypt and Europe during the middle ages. Several images of fresca’s and woodcuts are shown, depicting what the common conceptions of Hell were like. A popular depiction is the lake of fire, with Satan devouring sinners as they fall from grace to damnation. A tool many church’s would use to control their followers. Fear and intimidation are powerful weapons–just ask the folks at Fox news.
Although some claim that the film is actually 4 parts, I have always considered it 3. The second act of the film are several reenactments of what witch hunts would have appeared to be. We’re also shown several superstitions from the time period. Images of witches meeting at sabbaths, flying through the air on brooms, Satan tempting a young woman as she sleeps with her husband. These are the paranoid delusion instilled by an oppressive church. However, it also shows the dark reality of the time period. The inquisitions, the confessions dragged out of completely innocent people through barbarous methods of torture. A young actress of the film even has a pair of thumb screws demonstrated upon her. Although the film has no sound, the look upon her face says it all.
In one of the films most memorable segments, a convent of nuns seems to be possessed, they clamor around wildly as if they have absolutely no control over their actions. The imagery of this film is absolutely astounding for the time period. Like many silent films from the era, the acting can appear hokey during some segments. One has to remember however, film was still in the early stages of development.
The films final act is the present, or at least Europe in the early 1920’s. It shines light upon the fact that all of these cases of witchcraft, were in reality mental illness. Innocent people who had no control over their actions, because their minds were diseased with acute cases of kleptomania or schizophrenia. In one segment, a young woman diagnosed with hysteria is caught attempting to steal from a store, She tells the shopkeeper she had lost her husband during the war, and has not had control of her mind since. In the films conclusion Christensen’s cameras show the inside of an asylum. He remarks that the burning at the stake, has been replaced with cruelty faced by many of Europe’s mental patients, all for the sake of rehabilitation
This film serves as a chilling reminder. Although we have advanced technologically, we are still ignorant on how to treat those who are not possessed, but mentally ill, Even in this day and age paranoia, mass hysteria, and xenophobia are still with us. In a strange twisted irony, Europe would be plagued by a new kind of witch hunts, 20 years after the films release. This time however, it would take the form of the great purges of Josef Stalin, and the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s third reich.
There are 2 versions that exist of this film that I’m aware of. There’s the original Danish-Swedish production, with it’s subtitled original text. The a red and blue hued cinematography really helps add to the atmosphere. This is the better version in my opinion, due to the soundtrack of classical music, that accompanies the film. If you don’t feel like reading subtitles however, there is a black and white version with English narration .Although, I feel it’s sub par to the original.
(Note: It won’t kill you to read subtitles.)
Film is one of the worlds most powerful mediums. This work certainly proves that. Give it a watch, if you haven;t already. You might be surprised at some of the parallels with our modern times, and an age gone by.